Falling For You (Sapphire Bay Book 1)

Chapter 1

Natalie parked her truck on the side of the road and rolled down her window. For nine years she'd missed seeing the sparkling water of Flathead Lake, the mountains that rose around her like a warm and welcoming hug, and the wildflowers that grew everywhere. The colors, the light, the peace—it was all here and more.

Nestled against the shore of the lake was Sapphire Bay, the small town that had given her so many happy memories.

Her fingers itched to take out her sketchpad, but she had to keep moving. After countless delays and a diverted flight, it had taken three days to fly from Italy to Montana. She should have stayed with friends in Bozeman, caught up on the sleep she desperately needed. But once she'd made the decision to leave Venice, she'd wanted to get to Sapphire Bay as quickly as possible.

With one last, lingering look at the lake, she started her truck and drove toward town.

The number of vehicles on the road surprised her. So did the new stores that had opened. The sleepy little town with no traffic lights or fast food restaurants had changed. Cafés rubbed shoulders with antique stores. There was even a fashion boutique and a gallery. There were so many new businesses that she nearly drove past the general store.

The first person she saw when she walked inside was Mabel Terry. Gray hair framed the same kind face and gentle blue eyes that Natalie remembered.

Mabel was listening to a customer, smiling at what was being said.

While they were talking, Natalie found a shopping cart and wheeled it toward the shelves. She’d buy enough food for a few days, then come back when she wasn’t so jet-lagged. Halfway around the store, she remembered the apple cider that Mabel’s husband used to make.

She spun her cart around and nearly bumped into another woman. “Oops. Sorry.”

“That’s okay,” the woman said. “I’ve done the same thing myself. The aisles aren’t very wide.”

Natalie smiled and kept walking. After going up and down another two aisles, she stopped and frowned.

“You look lost. Can I help?”

The same woman she'd nearly collided with was standing beside her. “The owner of the store used to make his own apple cider. Do you know if he’s still selling it?”

“I sure do. Follow me.” The woman pushed her cart across the store and stopped in front of a small refrigerator. “Here you go.”

Stacked in neat rows were at least a dozen bottles of Allan's homemade cider. “Thanks. I don’t know how I missed them.”

“I’m not sure why they’re separate from the other drinks. But at least you know where they are now.” The woman held out her hand. “I’m Brooke. I haven’t seen you in Sapphire Bay before.”

“My grandparents owned a cottage here. I used to stay with them each summer, but I haven’t been back for a long time.”

“I moved here two years ago and it’s the best thing I ever did. Is this a visit or are you planning on staying?”

Natalie looked over her shoulder. It was silly to think that anyone would care about who she was, but old habits were hard to break.

A man took something off the shelf behind her.

After he’d moved away, she turned back to Brooke. “I thought I’d stay for a few weeks and see how everything goes.”

Mabel rushed across the store with her arms open wide. “Well, I do declare! If it isn’t Natalie Armstrong. It’s been too long since we’ve seen you.”

Natalie returned Mabel’s hug. “It’s good to see you, too. I’m surprised you recognized me.”

“You haven’t changed one bit. We missed seeing you at your grandparents’ funeral.”

“I was living in Europe and couldn’t get home.” Natalie swallowed the knot of grief that lodged in her throat. To this day, she regretted the decision she’d made. It had taken her too long to realize that work should never come before family.

Mabel’s generous smile turned into a frown. “I hope you pre-booked your accommodation. There’s a craft fair and a concert this weekend. The hotels are full.”

“I’m staying at my cottage for a while.”

“The cottage at the end of Bluewater Road?” Mabel seemed confused. “But someone’s living there. It was rented a couple of months ago.”

Natalie’s eyes widened. “Rented? Mom didn’t tell me someone’s staying there.”

“Are you sure the person is living in Natalie’s cottage?” Brooke asked.

Mabel nodded. “He’s come into the store a couple of times but doesn't say much.”

A massive headache started to build behind Natalie’s eyes. “I’ll pay for my groceries, then go and see him. Someone’s made a mistake.”

Brooke took a business card out of her pocket. “Take this. If you get stuck, give me a call. I have a spare bedroom you can use.”

She didn't think she'd need it, but Natalie took the card anyway. “Thanks. I'm sure it will be okay.”

“Don’t forget your apple cider,” Brooke said quickly.

Natalie added two half-gallon containers of cider to her cart. She might not need to use Brooke’s spare bedroom, but she would definitely need the cider.

* * *

Gabe’s fingers paused over the keyboard. He glanced at his story outline, then back at the page he'd spent the last hour rewriting. It wasn't working. No matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t find a convincing way to make a dead body appear in Zac Connelly's orchard.

His dog, Sherlock, looked up and sighed.

Gabe smiled. “You’re right. It’s time for a break. Let’s go for a walk.” Before he could push back his chair, Sherlock was sitting in front of the French doors, waiting to escape.

As soon as the doors opened, his black German Shepherd bolted down the path that led to Flathead Lake.

Gabe limped after him, wincing as a sharp pain shot down his right leg. He knew not to sit in one position for too long, but time had a way of disappearing when he was writing. In the next couple of hours he wanted to finish the second chapter of his book. But that depended on the dead body floating in the Hudson River.

Sherlock had disappeared, but he wasn't worried. The German Shepherd rarely went more than a hundred yards from him. He'd be in the forest, sniffing out a skunk, chasing a red squirrel, or terrorizing the neighbor's cat.

He took a deep breath, enjoying the sweet scent of the pine trees surrounding the property. After spending most of his life in New York City, Sapphire Bay was like living in a parallel universe. He'd only been here for three months, but he couldn't imagine going back to the concrete jungle he'd called home.

His cell phone rang. Gabe sighed. Sometimes, the rest of the world found you whether you wanted it to or not. He looked at the caller display before answering. “Hi, Caleb.”

“Where are you?”

Gabe stopped walking. The urgency in his friend’s voice worried him. “Walking toward the lake. Why?”

“A woman is coming to see you. She’s the granddaughter of the original owners of the cottage. She doesn’t know you’ve rented the property.”

“Why does that matter?”

“She was going to stay there.”

Gabe rubbed his leg. “She can’t. I’m here.”

“That’s up to you to work through. I just wanted to let you know that she’s on her way. Her name is Natalie.”

Of all the things he needed right now, an unexpected visitor wasn’t one of them. “Where did you see her?”

“She was buying groceries at the general store. I overheard her talking to Mabel.”

Anyone who spent more than a day in Sapphire Bay ended up in the general store. “Thanks for warning me.”

“No problem. How’s the book coming along?”

“Slowly. You don't know how to get a dead body from the Hudson River to Delaware, do you?”

“Refrigerated truck?”

“Too risky.”

“Boat?”

“Maybe.” Sherlock sprinted toward Gabe with something dangling from his mouth. “I’ve got to go. I’ll call you tonight.”

“Good luck with Natalie.”

“I don’t need luck. I’ve got a copy of the rental agreement and a screenshot of the original listing. If Natalie has a problem with that, she can talk to the person who rented me the cottage.”

“I’m looking forward to hearing how that conversation turns out. Call me after seven o’clock.”

Sherlock dropped an old shoe on the ground.

Gabe said goodbye to Caleb, then studied the rotting shoe. An idea started to form in his mind. An idea that might just get his dead body across to Delaware.

He knelt beside Sherlock and rubbed his ears. “Have I told you what a brilliant dog you are?”

Sherlock’s big brown eyes seemed to laugh at him. At least someone was having a good day.

* * *

As soon as Natalie stacked her groceries into the truck, she pulled out her phone. Her mom would know if someone was renting their cottage. The only problem was that her mom didn’t realize she was in America.

It only took a few seconds for Kathleen Armstrong to answer the phone. “Natalie? Why aren’t there a lot more digits in front of your number?”

The pounding in her head was getting worse. “Hi, mom. I’m in Sapphire Bay.”

“Our Sapphire Bay? In Montana? Why didn’t you tell me you were coming home?”

“It’s complicated.”

She heard her mother’s sharp intake of breath. “Calling me isn’t all that complicated. I thought you were in Venice getting ready for your next exhibition?”

If Natalie felt stressed before she’d called her mom, she felt worse now. “Someone broke into my apartment and stole two of my paintings.”

“Oh, my Lord. Were you hurt?”

“No. I was at the opening of a friend’s exhibition when it happened.”

“Thank goodness for that,” Kathleen sighed. “I worry about you. If something goes wrong, there’s not a lot I can do from Indianapolis.”

There was no point reminding her mom that she’d been living in Europe for nine years. Until a month ago, nothing had happened. “I need to paint two new canvases for Lorenzo’s gallery. I thought coming to Sapphire Bay would give me a better chance of finishing them. But someone told me grandma’s cottage has been rented.”

“Oh, dear. I didn’t know you were coming back. Gabe is a friend of a friend. He was desperate for somewhere to stay, so I let him rent the cottage. But he’s only using grandma and granddad’s rooms. Our side of the cottage is still empty.”

Natalie leaned against the side of her truck. Her grandparents’ cottage was originally a small two-bedroom home. When her parents divorced, her grandparents added another three bedrooms, a small living room, and a kitchen onto the cottage. She’d lived there with her mom until they’d moved to Bozeman.

“Why didn’t you tell me you rented the cottage?”

“I tried calling you, but you were at the Art Expo in Milan,” Kathleen said quickly. “I spoke to your landlord. He said he would tell you when you got back.”

Natalie sighed. Her landlord was a nice man, but he wasn’t the most reliable person on the planet. “He didn’t say anything.”

“Is there somewhere else you can stay?”

The chances of finding a property with enough space to set up a studio weren’t great. “I’ll call a realtor and ask.”

The traffic lights outside the general store turned red and a line of trucks stopped. “When did Sapphire Bay become so popular?”

“About three years ago. It’s less busy during winter. If you need anything—”

“No. I’m fine. I’ll go and see the man who rented the cottage. Did he know someone else might be living in the rest of the cottage?”

“No, although the rental agreement only gives him access to grandma and granddad’s side of the cottage. If it makes you any happier, Gabe used to be a detective in the New York Police Department. If you decide to stay, you couldn’t ask for a better neighbor.”

“We’ll see,” Natalie said. “I’ll call you tonight and let you know what’s happened.”

“You can always catch a flight to Indianapolis and stay with me.”

“Thanks, mom. I appreciate the offer, but I’ll speak to Gabe first.” When they’d finished talking, Natalie slid the phone into her pocket and opened the driver’s door. She was so tired she was tempted to fall asleep in the truck. And if talking to Gabe didn’t work out, that’s what she might have to do.

* * *

Gabe opened his front door. The woman standing on his porch didn’t look like any landlord he’d met. With her long brown hair pulled into a ponytail, black jeans, and a baggy red T-shirt, she could have been one of the hundreds of tourists passing through town.

Her deep blue eyes regarded him suspiciously. “Are you Gabe?”

He crossed his arms in front of his chest, leveling his best bad cop stare in her direction. “It depends on who’s asking.”

She didn’t even flinch. Interesting.

“I’m Natalie Armstrong. One of the owners of the cottage.”

“I thought you might be.”

Natalie’s eyes narrowed. “You knew I was coming?”

“A friend overheard you speaking to Mabel.” Reaching behind him, he took a folder off the hallway table. “This is a copy of my rental agreement.”

Her gaze skimmed over the document, pausing when she saw his signature. “You’ve been here three months?”

“Almost four.”

A deep doggy woof gave him a ten-second warning that Sherlock was running toward them.

He turned and used a hand signal. “Stop.”

Sherlock’s bottom hit the floor. With his ears pricked up, he looked at Gabe, waiting to see what happened next.

“You’ve got a dog?” For the first time since he’d seen her, Natalie’s blue eyes softened. “He’s beautiful. What’s his name?”

Gabe studied the smile on her face. If she thought she could sweet-talk him out of his rental agreement, she was wrong. “Sherlock.”

Her smile turned into a full-throttle grin. “Can I pat him?”

“Sure. Just go slow. He was a police dog and doesn’t like strangers.”

Natalie held out her hand.

Sherlock, being the contrary beast that he was, proved him wrong by not only licking her hand but moving closer.

“He likes me.”

Gabe cleared his throat. “That doesn’t mean you can tell me to leave.”

“That’s not why I’m here. I didn’t know anyone had rented the cottage, but that’s not your problem. I need somewhere to stay and the rooms at the back of the cottage are empty.”

“You want to move into the cottage?”

“Not the whole building,” Natalie said quickly. “Just the rooms at the back. I’ll have my own bathroom and there’s a separate kitchen. I’ll be completely self-sufficient.”

“That wasn’t part of my agreement.”

Natalie stopped patting Sherlock. “You agreed to lease my grandparents’ cottage. The rooms at the back aren’t part of the original house.”

Gabe knew they weren’t, but that didn’t mean he wanted a neighbor. “That’s not the point. I came here for some peace and quiet.”

“You won’t know I’m here.”

He doubted anyone could live within a few feet of her and not know she was there. “How long are you staying?”

She glanced down at Sherlock. “Three months at the most.”

Gabe studied the black circles under her eyes. When he’d signed the rental agreement, the realtor told him one of the owners was living overseas. What she hadn’t told him was that Natalie was coming back.

“Where have you come from?”

“Venice.”

“Italy?”

Natalie nodded. “I’m sorry this isn’t what you expected, but it’s the best I can do. I’m happy to call the hotels in town until we sort something out, but I don’t think they’ll have any rooms available. If I can’t stay here, I might have to sleep in my truck.”

Gabe looked down at Sherlock. The traitor had wiggled his way closer to Natalie’s legs. “You can’t sleep in your truck.”

“Does that mean that you don’t mind me living next door?”

He had a feeling he might regret what he was about to say, but he didn’t want Natalie to get hurt. “It’s your cottage. As long as you respect my privacy, we’ll get along fine.”

Natalie’s relieved smile made his breath catch. That hadn’t happened in so long he wondered what was wrong with him.

“Thank you. You don’t know how much I appreciate being able to stay here.”

She might not be so thankful after he looked into her background. He didn’t need any more surprises.