“LOVE STRUCK” by USA TODAY Best Selling author PATRICE WILTON.
Can Samantha and Kyle resist their attraction and find a way to save the town? The “love bug curse” and the discovery of gold has turned Serendipity Falls into a place where no one is safe.
I’m Cupid, and for those who don’t know about me, I reside in what used to be a beautiful little town in the foothills of Mammoth, California, called Serendipity Falls. You have to forgive me for being less upbeat than usual, but my heart is broken. This once idyllic town has been overrun by people who have no concept of the true meaning of love. For the past several years I took great joy uniting couples in matrimonial bliss, and was very proud of the fact that while weddings abounded, divorces became extinct. Then my ego got the better of me, and I drew attention to myself. People flocked to Serendipity Falls to find love and the truth behind the so called ‘love bug’ in the spring water. Of course, you and I know that no such bug existed–it was just me up to my old tricks.
The news carried wide and far, and reporters came to our neck of the woods, eager to learn what the phenomenon was about–this wedding fever that drove strangers toward the altar. Oh, I had been so proud. Even won the National Cupid for Excellence three years running.
So what am I complaining about, you ask? Well, last year one of these reporters fell in love with one of our local girls. Yes, I had a little hand in that. I’m not sorry and make no apologies either. They were right for each other, and I never–not once–unite couples who are not a perfect match.
Well, this young buck didn’t discover any ‘love bug’–instead he discovered gold behind the falls. His story drew national attention and opened up an unsavory can of worms. People flocked to our little paradise, men seeking their fortune in gold–women seeking husbands.
This is where my ambling story takes an unfortunate turn. You see-the women are desperate and have resorted to the most unladylike behavior–fighting one another, setting traps for men. Hundreds arrive by busloads each month, and with Valentine’s Day approaching, I fear a thousand more will get here soon.
The sad truth is that they have no idea what love is. The meaning of love has been forgotten, or perhaps in some cases, never learned.
With a heavy heart, I watch and pray that common sense will prevail and the crazy antics will stop. Until that day happens, I am going to retire my trusty bow and arrow. I want no part of this.
Love cannot be forced. It cannot be controlled. It cannot be tricked, or trapped. Love is setting someone free, and wanting that person’s happiness more than their own. It is unselfish. It is considerate and caring. And it is the essence of joy.
When those lessons have been learned I will embrace my love making skills again, but until then silence will be my answer.
Kyle wiped down a spill on the bar as his brother Devon slammed the register closed. “What’s the matter with you?” Kyle asked, dropping the beer stained towel in the small bar sink.
“Just tired. It was another good night, though, so I can’t complain.” Devon rubbed his bad knee as he eyed the crowd around the two pool tables. “And pretty quiet, all things considered.”
“Not quiet enough. I gave those guys ‘last call’ twenty minutes ago, but don’t see anyone making a move.” Kyle didn’t care for the new crowd. The regulars were a different bunch, but lately the place was swarming with guys who wanted to get lucky with women, or had come to town in search of gold. Either way they were rude and obnoxious.
“We’ll give them another fifteen, then pull the plug. I told Tara I’d be home before midnight. She hates me driving so late–ever since that city slicker missed the bend, and flew over the cliff. I told her a zillion times that he wasn’t a local and didn’t know the turns, but she worries anyway.”
“That’s what women do–worry.” Kyle grinned, still shocked that his older brother had happily taken the marital plunge. “One of the many reasons I don’t go there. I’d hate to see a gorgeous gal like Tara get gray hairs over me.”
“As if! When was the last time you went on a date? Three, four months ago?” He scoffed. “You must be the biggest chicken in town.” Devon flapped his arms, which looked kind of silly for a macho, six foot two, muscular guy. “Cluck, cluck, cluck.”
“Very funny.” Kyle snorted and continued to stack the beer glasses. “I’m no fool. Like things just the way they are.”
As he spoke the words, he realized they weren’t true. He’d enjoyed Mammoth and the quaint little town of Serendipity when they’d been peaceful and quiet. That life was gone forever. Ever since gold was discovered last spring behind the falls, the place exploded and became a boomtown. Crazies flocked into the area–women camping out, looking for their future husbands. Some actually carried lassoes in their big handbags, even snare traps. Scary shit.
The damn love bug thing is what drew Chase, who used to be a reporter for the San Francisco News, into the area in the first place. He didn’t discover the existence of the love bug in the spring water, but he did get the story of a lifetime. A meteor crash caused moldavite formations, which led him to the discovery of gold, of all damn things. Until Chase went searching for the source, everyone in Serendipity had been happy enough with the mysterious love bug theories.
For better or worse, Chase Carlton changed the dynamics. Not intentionally, of course. He was a stand-up guy, and had married their sister Mila last summer, then knocked her up to boot.
That mitigating factor made Kyle the only single O’Reilley left. He guarded his independence as though it was the American Declaration for equality and liberty, and it might slip away any second. Not that he had any complaints because his siblings were happy, but he doubted it was the water, or something magical in the mountain air that had brought them together. Watching Devon with Tara, and Mila with Chase, he could see their love was real.
“I can’t really blame you for running scared,” Devon said. “Did you see that busload of women on the news earlier?”
“Getting off at the mall, wearing ‘MARRY ME’ t-shirts?” Kyle sighed. “Yeah. The reporter said the ladies hope to be hitched by Valentine’s Day.”
“Damn. I nearly forgot. That’s coming up soon.”
“Can’t forget, bro,” Kyle laughed. “It’s two weeks from now. Better buy Tara flowers or something pretty.”
“I’m sure she’ll give me a hint. She likes to make life easy.”
“You got lucky, but the rest of us…heck, all the good women are gone.” There were days when Kyle thought about moving to Hawaii. At least the locals only had erupting volcanoes to worry about. And a possible Tsunami, which seemed mild in comparison to what he dealt with on a daily basis.
As a single man, and not exactly unattractive, he had to keep his head low and his fly zipped. He was the most endangered species around. Far more threatened than the Bald Eagle or the Giant Panda.
He and Dev ran the most popular bar in town, and with all those hungry, single babes, well, the place got hot. Cat fights broke out whenever an unsuspecting new guy appeared. They’d had to hire a bodyguard/bartender named Flex, and he helped put out the fires, but the two brothers had also become adept at squashing brawls before the place got wrecked.
Devon sighed, staring at the group still playing pool as he rubbed the back of his neck. “Things sure have changed from a few years ago.”
“Are you sorry you didn’t listen to me when I tried to talk you into selling?”
“No. Not at all. We got lucky,” Devon shook his head. “Finances were tight as hell. But then the boom came. Saved our asses.”
“Bad part is that with the cash came the crazies.” Kyle shrugged his shoulders. “One problem got solved, but others took its place. Gotta fight the IRS, who want to get their greedy hands on the profits, and then we have these, these…” he sputtered, searching for the right word. “These men-eating women!”
Devon just laughed. “I remember the time you’d have thought you’d died and gone to heaven with all the young ladies chasing you.”
“Key word is ladies. That’s not what we’ve got here.”
The clock ticked at 10:55 p.m. “Closing time,” he called out, loud enough for everyone to here. “I’ll lock up,” he said quietly to Devon, and headed toward the door.
Halfway there, the door swung open and a pretty young woman strolled in. Pretty was a vast understatement. She looked like she came from Sweden or Norway with her thick blonde mane of hair falling straight past her shoulders. In any language, she was a knockout. Striking blue eyes–as clear and wide as the lake near the falls.
She brushed past him without making eye contact and headed straight for the bar. He followed her, his eyes on the curve of her hips. Nice ass. And long, forever legs.
Normally this time of year heavy winter coats hid a woman’s best assets, but she wore jeans and a short leather jacket. Kyle allowed himself a moment’s appreciation.
“I’ll have a Chardonnay, please.” She slid onto the stool, putting both elbows on the bar, supporting her head with her hands.
Kyle eyed her for a moment. She was either exhausted or drunk. Either way, he didn’t intend on serving her. Knockout or no knockout. “Sorry, Miss. But we’re just closing.” He jerked his thumb at the clock on the wall. “Eleven o’clock.”
She popped open an eye, squinted and looked at the clock behind the bar. “It’s five to. I’ll drink fast.”
Kyle leaned in her direction, wondering if there would be tell-tale signs of booze on her breath. You all right? Haven’t been drinking, have you?”
Devon coughed into his fist at Kyle’s rude remark, but Kyle shrugged. He rinsed the towel from the sink, and started wiping the bar down. Last thing they needed was to be found negligible serving a minor, or someone who’d had too much to drink and wrapped themselves around a pole.
She pulled herself up, lifted her chin and shot him a look that should have sent him straight to hell. “I haven’t had anything but water all day.” Her voice quivered, and her blue eyes shimmered.
Kyle felt his resolve melt as he watched the tears appear.
“I’ve been driving for darn near sixteen hours straight. Got to Serendipity Falls and they’d given away my room for the night. Said I was late and they couldn’t hold my reservation.”
“That’s rotten luck. You probably should have called to let them know you were on your way,” Kyle said, taking some of the asshole out of his voice.
She ignored his not-so-helpful comment. “I ran around everywhere. Not one single room to be found.” She sniffed and tried to smile, but the attempt failed dismally. “Now give me that drink, or I’m likely to have a meltdown right here and now.”
Kyle, feeling like a jerk, looked at Devon, who nodded. “You need something to eat? We’ve got bar snacks. Not much, I’m afraid, but our hotdogs are pretty good.”
“That’s nice of you, but no. I grabbed a bite to eat at the diner before driving up here. The one that overlooks the falls.” She wiped away a tear that had seeped out the corner of her eye and trickled down her cheek. “The waitress there, Sue something, she gave me a big bowl of home-made chili and fresh baked bread.”
“Sue Burke’s a heck of a nice woman,” Kyle said, pouring a generous glass of wine and sliding it over to her. “Also makes the best soups in town.”
“Uh-huh.” She plopped her head in her hand again, as if too tired to hold it up. “Would have had my wine there, but I didn’t know how far up the mountain I had to go.”
“Good thing. The road can be dangerous at night.” Kyle normally didn’t engage in conversation with pretty young women, but she seemed more interested in her glass of wine, so he relaxed his guard a notch. “Take your time. We’ll need to start moving our customers toward the door soon. Probably won’t empty out until half past, sometimes closer to midnight.”
She nodded, thanked him, and took a long swallow. Then another. “I still need to find a place to sleep.” She glanced around at the twenty or so people hanging around. “You know of a cheap motel where I can stay?”
Devon stopped rinsing glasses and stepped forward. “I do. My place.”
Her eyes widened. “I’m desperate, but not that desperate. Besides, I’m not that kind of girl.”
Devon laughed. “My wife and I own a B&B. Someone checked out this morning. We have one room which might still be available. I’d have to check with Tara to be sure.”
“Please do. That would be great.”
Devon walked to the other side of the bar to make the call.
Kyle couldn’t seem to get his feet moving. He wasn’t sure why, but this woman’s plight struck a chord in him. “Things will work out,” he told her. “If not Devon’s, I’ll call around and find you a place.”
“Why are you being so kind all of a sudden?” Her eyes grazed his face, and she frowned. “No one goes out of their way for strangers. There’s always an angle.”
“They do here in Mammoth and down in Serendipity Falls. It’s the friendliest place in the nation. At least, it used to be.”
“So I heard, but not for me tonight.”
“Give it some time. You’ll see.”
“Hey, Kyle. Another Cosmo before you close down,” someone shouted from the back of the room.
“You’ve had enough,” Kyle shouted back. “Closing time, folks. Drink up and drive safely. We’ll see you all back here tomorrow.”
Over the boos and hisses, a male voice spoke up. “You just served the lady a drink. One more round. Come on,” he coaxed. “One last call.”
“Last call was a half hour ago. Maybe you didn’t hear it.”
Devon was on the phone with Tara, and he put his hand to his throat, telling Kyle to cut them off.
“We’re done here, folks.” Kyle raised his voice. “It’s quitting time.”
“I’m sorry. If I hadn’t come in…” the pretty woman spoke softly, and lifted her eyes. Kyle saw the two blue ponds brimming with tears.
Kyle could see she was close to losing it. The long drive. Hotel room gone. It had been a hellova day and she looked set for a weeping jag. “Don’t be. They’re always one or two assholes in the crowd.”
Devon came back with a smile. “You’re in luck. We’ve still got one room, and my wife, Tara, is holding it for you. You can follow me when I leave. It’s about half way between us and Serendipity.”
“Back the other way?” She took another sip of her wine, her expression cautious. “Perhaps I’d better stay in town.” She fingered the stem of her glass. “Not that I’m not grateful. Just…you know.”
She shrugged but her eyes said it all. She didn’t know him, and hesitated over trusting him.
Devon rested his hip against the bar. “It’s getting late, and you don’t want to be running all over town looking for a room, do you?”
A guy with a ponytail and a baseball cap stood leaning against a pole, where he’d been watching her with drunken interest. He stepped closer and put a hand on her shoulder. “Hey, girl. If you’re looking for a bed tonight, you can share mine.” He laughed. “Don’t need to worry about a jealous wife. Ain’t got one.”
“Back off, Billy. Go home. You’ve had enough beer for one night,” Kyle told him, his jaw set.
“Mind your own business, Kyle. I’m about to get lucky with this pretty lady here.” His arm tightened around her shoulders and he pulled her close. He smiled, breathing fumes into her face. “If you’re here to find a man, you don’t need to look any further.”
She shrugged his arm off of her, and twisted away. “I’m not looking for a man. Just a hotel room.”
“A pretty thing like you shouldn’t be alone tonight.” Billy said with a leer. “I’ll give you a good old-fashioned welcome. Show you how friendly us locals can be.”
“Enough,” Kyle said, annoyed that this woman was getting harassed in his bar. He poured half a beer and beckoned Billy. As soon as the guy was close enough, Kyle popped him on the jaw and watched him stagger back. “That’s no way to treat a lady. Now, get out.”
Billy recovered quickly and came after Kyle, who stepped out of arm range, and danced light on his feet like a prize fighter. Billy continued to flail his arms, attempting in his inebriated state to reach Kyle, who should have known better than to taunt him with tight jabs and fancy footwork. Just maybe he was showing off a little.
“You had enough?” Kyle said, putting down his hands. “Why don’t you go home and sleep it off.”
“Just about done.” Billy, cross-eyed, delivered a right hook, which Kyle managed to dodge. After that everything happened in slow motion.
The shot directed at Kyle’s chin missed its mark, connecting with the woman at the bar. She cried out, and toppled off the barstool.
Devon moved quickly, grabbing Billy by his ponytail and forcefully taking him out to the street. Kyle leaped into action, crouching at the woman’s side. Remorse, anger, and shame warred inside of him. He’d been a fool to taunt Billy. And this poor girl had taken the brunt of the fist. A damn fine welcome she’d had in this once friendly town.
“I’m sorry. This is entirely my fault.” He touched her shining hair, wanting to do something crazy, like take her in his arms and hold her tight. Poor kid. Her bad day had just gotten a whole lot worse.
She shook his hand off and edged away.
“Are you all right?” he asked gently. “That fist was meant for me. You didn’t deserve it.” She was scrunched over and he couldn’t see her face.
He stood, offering her his hand. She didn’t take it.
“He just grazed me,” she whispered. “But it was the shock that scared me.” She stood up slowly, brushing off her jeans, and then pushed her hair out of her eyes. They were wide, alert, but not frightened.
“Are you sure?” He touched her chin gently, turning her face from side to side, inspecting it for bruises. “It’s a little pink, right here,” he touched the side of her cheek. His voice sounded weird to his own ears. He cleared his throat. “Is it sore?”
“No.” She shook her head. “I’m not hurt.”
“Damn.” He’d known Billy for years, and had never seen him act out before. He’d had more to drink than normal, but that was no excuse for his actions tonight. “This place doesn’t usually get rowdy, but with all the strangers lately, well, we never know what to expect.”
“It’s all right. I grew up with two brothers. I’m used to a few wild punches.”
They stood close to each other, staring into each other’s eyes. Kyle couldn’t look away. Seemed like she couldn’t either.
“What’s your name?” He licked his dry lips, watching her mouth. He liked the shape of it. Lush, pink lips, slightly open. Kissable lips, a mouth that could drive a man crazy. Not Billy crazy, but thinking about how fine they’d taste, and how he’d like to suck on that bottom lip…
“It’s Samantha,” she said in a husky voice, as if she were having trouble breathing. “I go by Sam.”
“Nice to meet you, Sam. I’m Kyle O’Reilley, and that’s my brother, Devon. You can trust him. He and Tara will take good care of you, I promise.”
“You’ve both been so kind,” she said, putting her hand to her throat. “Devon, thanks for calling your wife. What about you, Kyle? Married?”
Kyle took an instinctive step backward, seeing the overly-bright sheen in her eyes. His body reacted to her husky voice. Not good, man. Not good.
His antenna went on full survival alert. “Well, Sam, truth is, when it comes to single women and husband shopping, I’m a little gun shy.”
Patrice Wilton knew from the age of twelve that she wanted to write books that would take the reader to faraway places. She was born in Vancouver, Canada, and had a great need to see the world that she had read about.
Patrice became a flight attendant for seventeen years and traveled the world. At the age of forty she sat down to write her first book—in longhand! Her interests include tennis, golf, and writing stories for women of all ages.
She is the proud mother of two, has four lovely grand-daughters, and a wonderful man at her side. They live in West Palm Beach, Florida, where he teaches her golf, and she teaches him patience. She is a USA Today Best Selling author.