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Excerpt for Hidden Hopes (Inn Love 2 - Canada) by , available in its entirety at Smashwords

Hidden Hopes




Devika Fernando



Inn Love, Book 2 (Canada)





Published by Devika Fernando at Smashwords

 

Copyright 2018 Devika Fernando



This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This eBook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favorite eBook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

About the Author

 

Almost as soon as Devika Fernando could write, she imagined stories and poems. After finishing her education in Germany and returning to her roots in Sri Lanka, she got a chance to turn her passion into her profession. Having lived in Germany and in Sri Lanka with her husband has made her experience the best (and the worst) of two totally different worlds – something that influences her writing. Her trademark is writing sweet, yet deeply emotional romance stories where the characters actually fall in love instead of merely falling in lust. What she loves most about being an author is the chance to create new worlds and send her protagonists on a journey full of ups and downs that will leave them changed. She draws inspiration from everyone and everything in life. Besides being a romance novel author, she works as a self-employed German web content writer, as a translator, and as a faithful servant to all the cats, dogs, fish and birds in her home. When she’s not writing, she’s reading or thinking about writing.



To find out more, check out the following links:

 

http://www.devikafernando.com

https://twitter.com/Author_Devika

https://www.facebook.com/devikafernandoauthor







Hope is but the dream of those who wake.


(Matthew Prior)





For the friend who inspired the heroine and the actor who inspired the hero.




Table of Contents


Prologue

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Epilogue

Other Books by Devika Fernando

About the Author


Prologue


Colby buried his face in his hands, wondering when his private life had last been private.

Here he was, hiding in the broom closet of the ‘staff only’ section at his favorite New York pub, like a five-year-old scared of a belting.

Now that would make for a nice headline in whatever tabloid was baying for his blood these days. Hollywood Heartthrob Hiding in Broom Closet – Does Colby Williams think playing Harry Potter will redeem him?

With a snort, he imagined the whole article. He’d become quite good at knowing how tabloids played their hateful little game ever since he was on the receiving side.

No, they probably wouldn’t call him Hollywood Heartthrob, he decided with a mirthless smirk. These days, it was more along the lines of Brooding Bachelor or Newly-Single Sorry-Ass, and those were the less venomous jabs.

If he’d known years ago that this was where following his passion and acting would lead him, he’d have gladly become an accountant or something predictably dull.

Colby let his head hit the wall with a thunk, feeling his legs cramp because his tall, bulky frame wasn’t made for hiding in broom closets.

He’d come here tonight after days of locking himself into his apartment, hoping for a few beers in a corner, a bit of drowning in sorrow and more than a bit of sharing fries with his friend Dave who owned the pub. But no, his rotten luck chose to pounce again. Somehow, the paps had sniffed him out and turned the whole place upside down to catch a few tell-tale snaps.

Gritting his teeth, he forced his temper down. As if the paparazzi weren’t bad enough, they’d come with a screeching, pink-haired banshee of a woman in tow who called herself a reporter and had the nerve to follow him into the men’s restroom for an exclusive sound bite when he’d fled.

“Jesus, how can these people sleep at night?” he muttered to himself. Then he remembered that he hadn’t been able to sleep properly for weeks, so he probably shouldn’t throw any stones.

The softest of knocks made him jerk and promptly hit his knee on a wooden crate. He muffled a curse with his hand, waiting to see who it might be. His buddy Dave had shoved him into the closet and locked it from the outside, pocketing the key after promising with a mighty scowl that he’d “personally kick those assholes onto the curb and see they don’t come back, ever.”

Colby had no idea for how long he’d been crouching in here, in the dark with a faint whiff of dust, wood, plaster and cotton, slowly losing his mind. He hated the dark. He hated closed spaces. And he hated spiders even more. As long as they were in his line of sight and a few meters away, he could tolerate them just fine and fake manly disinterest, but this was their territory and he felt like a helpless wimp.

Seemed like feeling helpless and out of his depth was something he’d perfected over the past few weeks.

“C? It’s me.”

He breathed a sigh of relief, which promptly made him inhale a lung-full of dust and sneeze.

“Dave.” He didn’t even recognize his own voice. Shit, since when did he sound so broken? “Are they gone?”

“Yup. Made damn sure those cowards are pissing themselves because they think they’ll hear from my lawyer.”

He could hear the rumble of a chuckle, then the key turning in the lock.

Dave reached a huge paw of a hand into the closet and hauled Colby unceremoniously to his protesting feet. He looked him over, bushy blonde brows lowered in a fiercely protective scowl. “You all right there, buddy?”

“Yeah. Pretty sure I’ll have cramps for days, though. Why the hell don’t you invest all that money you make in a decent-sized broom closet?” he joked, not exactly hitting the light tone he’d aimed for because anger and hurt constantly lurked beneath the surface these days.

“Why, you planning to move in permanently?”

“I might, if you buy me a TV and bring daily rations of jelly beans and burgers.”

Colby attempted a grin, but it fell short, and his friend’s eyes narrowed with concern. Dave was a bear of a man, even taller than him and with just as much fat on his giant body as muscle. No wonder the paps had scampered out the door like mangy dogs when he’d entered the scene. Beneath all the brawn lurked a heart of gold. Dave was only ten years his senior, but he was almost a second father. He’d taken Colby under his wing years ago when he’d arrived in the Big Apple full of ambitions and outdated notions of fairness, oblivious to all the predators waiting to pounce on a timid if jovial Boston boy.

“C, if you can’t even crack a joke with your old buddy Dave here, you’re in seriously deep trouble.”

Colby scraped a hand over his face, days of stubble making a raspy sound in the heavy silence of the hallway. “I guess I am, yeah. I just…” He sighed, his broad shoulders slumping in defeat. “I wish all the shit hadn’t hit the fan at the same time. First the cheating accusations, then my baby sis with her freak accident…” He swallowed, feeling the now familiar lump block his throat. “I don’t know where my head’s at right now. Or my heart. I don’t know who I am and what I want.”

Now that he’d mustered the courage to admit it, he felt more rather than less scared. How could he have let it come this far? Hadn’t he been surfing a success wave for more than a year, nailing all the great roles and planning his own wedding?

“C? Wanna listen to your old, wise friend Dave?”

That pulled him out of his dark thoughts. Raising a brow, he quipped half-heartedly, “You’re not old, you idiot. Though I gotta admit that you’re pretty wise for your age.”

If he’d been himself, he’d have cracked a joke about some grey hairs in the blond ponytail, but he couldn’t even bring himself to make an effort for his best friend. If that wasn’t a sure-fire sign of how messed up he was…

Dave lobbed an arm around his shoulder and pulled him close. “Listen to me. What you need is a break. A clean cut so you can forget the hell about whatever you think might define you here and rediscover the real Colby who lies under all that gloss.”

Colby scoffed. “Now that does sound awfully like the philosophical shit old, wise men tend to spout.”

“Shut up and do what I say,” his friend growled good-naturedly, with enough authority shining through to make Colby straighten up and listen.

“Do you trust me?” Dave asked.

“With my life.” He didn’t have to think twice.

“Then let me do this for you. I know a place where you can hide for a while and put all those broken pieces together again. But you gotta promise me something. You need to cut all ties to Hollywood and everything even remotely connected to it. You got that?”

What was there to lose?

“Roger that.”




Chapter 1


Silence all around her.

Not the oppressive or ominous kind, but the kind of silence that made you want to take deep breaths and let everything go.

As soon as Hope had acknowledged the stillness, embraced it, small noises wove themselves through the comforting fabric of quiet. Far away, a bird called once, twice, three times, before the initial hush descended again. Leaves rustled in the breeze. Dry earth dotted with lumps of grass crunched softly underfoot when she started walking along the path to the Pleasant View Bed & Breakfast nestled in the Canadian Rocky Mountains.

Hope cast a look backwards at the now empty bus halt where she’d gotten off a few minutes ago, at the border of the village. A narrow, paved road branched off not far from the footpath, reserved for delivery vehicles and the bed & breakfast’s van used to pick up tourists. Everyone booking a room at the newly established hideaway in the mountains had the choice to either be taken to their destination in the van or to walk there through the forest, which was supposed to take only half an hour. Never one to back down from a challenge or miss a bit of outdoors fun, Hope had opted for the latter.

She gripped the strap of her travel bag tighter and walked on, wondering if she’d encounter anyone on her short hike. Unlikely, for the BnB’s selling point was its secluded location in the wilderness, making it the ideal spot to take a break amid nature.

After a few steps, the forest seemed to swallow her whole. It felt as if she had stepped out of civilization and into a parallel universe where dappled sunlight, the soft, cool caress of a gentle yet constant wind, and various shades of green reigned. With a smile on her face, Hope followed the winding path, mostly cleared of undergrowth but so close to shrubs and trees that she could have reached out to touch them.

She wasn’t just here for the peace and quiet, although even ten minutes of silence and alone-time were pure bliss for a busy high school teacher. The Pleasant View was run by one of her best friends. Vinu had opened it barely six months ago, investing every last cent of her savings into the project that was completely hers and a dream come true. Hope had booked her stay as soon as the rooms had been live online so she could be the first paying guest.

This was new for her. Meeting a friend face to face with whom she’d only ever chatted online but who felt like a soul sister. And this was the first time that she’d left the US and that she was traveling alone.

With a start, Hope realized she was humming softly to herself. Her smile widened. If a few minutes in the Canadian wilderness were enough to relax her this much, she would be coming back from this vacation feeling ten years younger and energetic enough to tackle all the trouble her students were constantly up to.

She took a deep breath, inhaling the woodsy scent of pine needles, moss, leaves and soil. Off and on, the vegetation grew a little less dense and she caught a glimpse of the Rockies, rising majestically in the not-so-far distance like a grandiose backdrop of picture-postcard perfection.

The breeze picked up, pushing wisps of red hair into her face and reminding her that she was wearing it longer than she had for years. It barely reached her shoulders, but it was a big difference from the sporty pixie cut which had been her trademark for so long that it felt like betrayal to let her hair grow.

What was it about women and changing their hairstyle whenever they started a new phase in life?

Tugging the strand back behind her ear and transferring her bag to the other hand, Hope mulled over the decisions that had brought her here. She had reached a slightly terrifying point in life when she wasn’t sure what the future held, only sure that she needed to remake herself, re-evaluate her choices.

A little ahead, a black-and-brown bird broke through the undergrowth on the right, swooping down to peck at the ground and soaring back up with a fat worm in its beak.

Would Richard have appreciated this place? Or would he have started talking, analyzing, and dissecting things because it was in his nature?

Hope’s steps slowed as her mind traveled to her ex-boyfriend. They’d been together for five years after being friends for nearly as many years. It had been the logical thing to do; after all, they shared many common interests, were both teachers from small towns, both eager to settle down, to care and be cared for.

If they’d been so well-matched, envied by all her friends who had row upon row with their boyfriends or were thrown off balance by cheating, then why hadn’t she felt happy? Sure, they had enjoyed many nice moments, living together in their small apartment and as in sync as a long-married couple. But that special something had been missing, and for more than a year now, Hope had—uncharacteristically—lost hope that it would ever be found.

She’d debated for months, written book-length messages back and forth with her closest friends, even made goddamn bullet point lists in a journal to know what the right thing to do was. And when she’d finally broken the news to her trusty, dependable, kind boyfriend who failed so spectacularly to cause a spark inside her, Richard had nodded and calmly accepted defeat. He’d given her a hug and sat down for a reasonable discussion of how they would handle the break-up—and she’d known then and there that she’d made the right decision. She wanted—no, needed—someone who was willing to fight for her, who’d be heartbroken over losing her, who’d damn well shout in anger or shed a tear while begging her to stay. Didn’t she deserve that? The feeling that she was valued so much that for at least a moment it would feel to him as if his life had ended?

“Idiot,” Hope muttered to herself, apparently startling some small animal or other into scurrying noisily away through the thick wall of shrubs on her left. “You’ve been reading too many romance novels.”

Hoisting her bag over a shoulder, she marched on with more determination and speed. She shouldn’t think of the past, and Richard was very much part of her past now, even if she still saw him daily and he still treated her with the same effortless, if also a little thoughtless, kindness of a friend.

The path forked in front of her, sneaking slightly uphill to the left and meandering in uniform shades of green and brown to the right.

Oh, she’d forgotten about that. Vinu had mentioned there was a lookout somewhere in the forest, the only other place of interest on this huge plot of land belonging to the Pleasant View Bed & Breakfast. With her free hand, Hope fished her phone out of her jeans pocket, tapping the screen for the map that would help her choose the right path.

Nothing. Blackness. Stopping in alarm, she pressed the button harder and repeatedly, swiping her fingers over the blank screen as if the result would be different if she kept at it long enough.

“Damn it all to hell.”

Her phone’s battery was clearly dead. With a chagrined pout, she realized she should’ve paid attention to the percentage, but she’d been so engrossed in reading her favorite author’s latest eBook during the flight and the following bus ride that she’d forgotten about everything else.

Great. Not just the map but Vinu’s detailed instructions were on the phone. For a minute, she wracked her brain, trying to remember what her friend had told her about getting to the BnB. Nothing.

“Serves you right for being a fool,” she scolded herself, startling another invisible forest dweller into a hasty retreat.

Left or right?

She stared hard at both paths as if they’d reveal their secret like this. Making a mental note to tell Vinu to put up some signs, she turned to her right.

The worst that could happen to her would be to end up at the lookout instead of the inn, which would mean a much longer walk to trace her steps back to the junction or maybe hiking along another path.

Plastering the encouraging smile on her face that she used daily with her students, Hope marched on. An idle voice inside her head wondered whether Vinu would panic and send a search party if she took too long to turn up. And hadn’t her friend mentioned bears in the woods?

Her steps quickened automatically, but she scoffed at her nerves. As long as she stayed on the path, nothing would happen to her.

The longer she walked, the denser the forest grew around her. The path began to incline, and the trees blocked out not only most of the sun but also the breeze she’d grown so fond of.

Despite the verdant coolness around her, a light sheen of sweat formed, and her bag seemingly weighed a ton.

To distract herself, Hope began reciting Spanish poetry in her mind, saving her breath for what was now more a climb than a walk. Spanish had always been her passion, and she’d turned it into her profession too, teaching it to high school students.

Caminante, no hay camino, se hace camino al andar,” she recited, then grinned at herself at the irony because the line from a famous poem by Antonio Machado could be translated as “Wayfarer, there is no way, make your way by going farther.”

Just when her legs were starting to protest, Hope cleared a rise. What she saw made her stop dead in her tracks. Only a few feet away, the forest gave way to shrubs and moss-covered stones, opening onto a small clearing that ended in what looked to be a sheer drop. A wooden railing ran the length of the almost semi-circular clearing, and even from where she stood, the panoramic view proved to be breathtaking.

She was so enraptured by the endless view beckoning her closer that it took her a full minute to realize she wasn’t alone.

A man stood at the far left end of the lookout, his tall, rather bulky body half-bent over the railing he was clutching with both hands. He wore faded blue jeans that outline muscled legs, and a grey hoodie with the hood drawn over his head, stretching tightly over broad shoulders.

“Oh, hi,” Hope called out, feeling like an intruder.

No response.

“Um, sorry to be disturbing you like this,” she added, a bit flustered. “I was actually on my way to the bed & breakfast but took the wrong turn.”

Still no response. The man didn’t even lift his head from where it hung between his shoulders. Was he looking at something below, too engrossed to bother? Was he a foreigner who didn’t understand English?

Hope walked towards the railing and let her heavy bag slide to the ground with a thump. She stared out at the miles and miles of mountain slopes and hills below, the bluish green, gleaming ribbon of a river snaking through it. Then she lifted her gaze to admire the Rocky Mountains in all their awe-inspiring grandeur, towering over the scenery in centuries-old silence. They seemed so close she felt like reaching out and touching them, yet at the same time so far away they could as well have been in a different country.

“Wow, that really is some view,” she mumbled under her breath, drinking her fill.

But curiosity niggled, so she stole a sideways glance at the silent stranger to the left. Because of the hood, she couldn’t see his face. His hands looked big and strong, wrapped so tightly around the wood that his white knuckles stood out even at a distance of a few feet.

Something about how still he held himself, bathed in shadows and yet standing out, tugged at her heart strings. She could feel the tension rolling off him in waves. Was he sad? Lonely?

Well, it’s none of your business if he’s either, she told herself, setting her jaw. Her friends were always ribbing her about caring too much. She was drawn to those in need, filled with this almost painful eagerness to make them feel better, to assure them they were cared for, loved.

Before she could bite her tongue, more words tumbled out, sounding harsh in the almost reverent stillness. “It’s a truly spectacular view, isn’t it? I feel like ‘pleasant’ doesn’t even come close to it.”

Silence.

“You know, pleasant as in the Pleasant View Bed & Breakfast?”

No reaction—or was he standing up a little straighter, that tall body tensing even more?

“Uh… are you staying at the Pleasant View too? As a guest?”

Maybe he really was a foreigner who didn’t understand quite what she was talking about? She had just decided to try something in broken French—because they knew French in Canada too, didn’t they?—when the man spoke in a dry and low, hostile rumble.

“I sure as hell didn’t come out here to hunt deer.”

Well, there you go, he did understand English. And from his accent, he was an American, like her. It took a second to sink in how rude his reply was, his tone clearly saying ‘piss off and leave me alone’. Perversely, reactions like that always served the opposite purpose, egging her on.

“Great, if you’re staying there too, you can help me.”

She took a step in his direction, and the stranger shifted away so fast it must have been an instinctive reaction. He still hadn’t even looked at her once.

Slightly spooked, Hope stopped in her tracks, her gaze shifting from him to the wilderness below and to her bag.

Was he really a guest? What if he was some kind of escaped criminal hiding in the woods? Or a deranged local who waited here to have his merry way with single women who traipsed into his trap?

She swallowed, then gave herself a mental kick in the butt. Don’t be ridiculous, Hope, he’s the one who’s shying away from you. He’s probably as threatening as a lone eagle minding his own business way up high while you flounder around down on the ground.

Clearing her throat, she aimed for a less loud and cheerful tone. “I need your help. If you can offer it, that is.”

Silence, then a non-committal grunt that could’ve meant anything.

“Uh… I kind of lost my way. Took the wrong turn and ended up here and not at the inn.” She blushed, feeling stupid and like a damsel in distress, which was something she certainly wasn’t for most days in her life.

Fumbling with the hem of her cream-colored crew-neck sweater, she wondered whether she should turn and walk back the way she’d come. Clearly, she wasn’t welcome here. But her legs were starting to ache, and Vinu was probably having a minor cardiac arrest by now, wondering where the hell she was.

“Do you happen to know whether there’s a direct path from here to the BnB so I don’t have to backtrack? I mean, it’s beautiful and I love hiking, but…”

When he cut her off with another cold, growly retort, she was so shocked to hear him speak that she nearly squeaked.

“If you kept your mouth shut for all of three seconds for a change, and used your eyes instead, you wouldn’t have to ask me.”

Hope only gaped at the man, who was still refusing to acknowledge her or show even a semblance of politeness. He half-turned, jabbing a hand to the side. When she followed the gesture, she spied a second path next to a bench cut into a rock.

Duh. She wanted to smack her forehead, but resisted.

Trying to get her jumbled emotions under control, she searched for an appropriate reaction. “Thanks…I guess.”

God, this was awkward.

Hope wheeled around to grab her bag and leave. In her eagerness, she didn’t pay attention to the ground. Her left foot snagged on a protruding root and she stumbled, flailing for balance for a moment before hitting the ground. Her breath whooshed out of her and she barely managed to catch herself on her hands before planting her face in the dirt.

“Shit,” she cursed under her breath, blushing beet-red in humiliation. She was a bit of a klutz even on her best days, and today clearly wasn’t one of her best days.

Muttering more expletives, she pushed herself up and stood—only to whimper and stagger when her left ankle protested with a twinge of pain. It wasn’t unbearable but it winded her for a moment. Gingerly, she bent and felt around her foot with her fingers, prodding the sore spot. Another spark of pain shot through her foot and made her hiss in a breath between her teeth.

Great. Just great. She’d managed to sprain her ankle or something. And that insufferably rude hunk of impoliteness over there was probably laughing his ass off.

She prodded her ankle again, glad as hell that nothing too serious seemed to be wrong with it. Grabbing her bag and using it for support, she gingerly placed a bit of weight on her left foot. Painful, but bearable. She could do this.

Gritting her teeth, Hope pulled herself upright, holding the bag in her right hand so she wouldn’t strain her injured side. Half-hobbling and keeping her eyes firmly fixed on the ground in case of more roots, she crossed the small clearing to the second path. She passed the stranger by without looking at him. Silence. Of course.

She suppressed another hiss at the pain when she limped faster, berating herself in her mind.

The touch of a hand on her elbow made her gasp and flinch, and only the same hand gripping her firmly prevented her from falling flat on her face again.

“Wha-?!”

Aghast, she stared up at the towering figure of the stranger, so close to her that she could smell the hint of unobtrusive cologne and see the rapid rise and fall of a nicely broad chest beneath the ratty fabric of the obviously well-worn sweater. Her eyes traveled up of their own volition, but the man kept his face half-lowered and averted, so she caught only a square jaw covered in a brown beard.

“You hurt yourself.” His voice was decidedly less gruff this time, and something about it rang a bell, but she was much too confused by his hot-and-cold behavior to focus on it.

“It’s nothing,” she bit out, trying to wrench her elbow free of his oddly possessive and warm touch. It only made her teeter precariously because she was putting almost all her weight on her good foot.

His grip remained firm on her arm, and before she knew it, he’d reached for the straps of her bag and pulled it none too gently out of her grasp.

She was still spluttering and protesting inarticulately when he hoisted it effortlessly over a shoulder as if it didn’t weigh more than a handbag. Muscles bulged beneath the hoodie, and even in her pain-addled state she appreciated the mouth-watering sight and the power this man radiated.

“I’ll walk you to the bed & breakfast. C’mon.”

It was a command that brooked no objection, and Hope’s feet reacted automatically, falling into step beside him. She didn’t have much choice anyway, as he was still holding onto her elbow and had even tugged her close enough so she was half-leaning on him awkwardly.

“Would you let me go?” she protested. “Hey, let me go, please. I’m all right, I can get there perfectly fine on my own.”

“You’re hurt,” the man repeated. “I’d be a damn awful gentleman if I let you hobble all the way there.”

Before she could hold the comment back, it burst out in a ridiculously indignant tone. “You call yourself a gentleman? Huh.”

Whoops, probably not the nicest thing to say to a stranger who was after all helping her now, despite his earlier rudeness and her refusal to be helped.

A small sound was his only reaction, something between a snort and a reluctant chuckle.

What the hell, Hope thought, it’s probably better if I let him have his way.

And it did feel nice not to have to carry her bag and to lean on his supporting frame so her foot didn’t shoot flashes of pain through her whole left side with every step.

Silently, they made their way along the path, and Hope tried to focus on the heat his strong body emanated, on the reassuring sound of his breath, on the hint of a scruffy jaw and the oddly tantalizing sight of his huge fingers wrapped around her arm with the right amount of pressure.



Chapter 2


They walked in silence, navigating the sometimes winding, often steep but mercifully root- and stone-less path with surprising ease. After the first few fumbling steps—and after Hope had overcome her reluctance to really lean on the helpful stranger and let him offer proper support—they fell into sync as effortlessly as if they had done this before countless times.

It disconcerted her. To depend on him. To feel so unbalanced, in the literal and figurative way. To sense that sizzling spark of attraction surge through her body.

And so she stayed as quiet as him and steered her thoughts to a safer terrain, a little too irritated that he wasn’t even breathing irregularly from the strain.

Vinu must be waiting for her, probably anxious by now. Had she tried to reach her phone and gotten more panicky when it didn’t work? Had she sent out a search party? Called to verify whether the bus had really dropped Hope off at the correct halt?

She knew her friend was a meticulous planner and would leave no stone unturned to find out why Hope was late in reaching the inn.

The inn. She couldn’t wait to finally lay eyes on it, although she’d seen more photos of it than anyone else as Vinu had shared them with her along the way. Her friend had received the deed for the land in the Rockies as part of an inheritance—which was an amazing story in itself: Up until recently, Vinu had worked as a specialized caretaker, and some years ago she’d been looking after an old man with a frail body and active spirit. In gratitude for her being more of a second granddaughter to him than simply a caretaker, the man had signed his land over to Vinu.

Hope smiled to herself. She firmly believed that good people were rewarded for their deeds, and her friend deserved this almost magical gift. Vinu had always wanted to start her own business, though she also loved her caretaker job. True to her nature, she hadn’t jumped headlong into making use of the land but researched and planned. Inspired by the success of the world-famous Fairmont Le Chateau Montebello resort and hotel complex in Quebec—which was the world’s largest log cabin and sat grandly on 70 acres of land close to the Ottawa river as well as to a forested wildlife sanctuary—Vinu had worked out her own unique concept: the Pleasant View, a group of ten log cabins of varying sizes. Nestled in this forest region of the Rocky Mountains, the property combined the rustic, traditional charm of log cabins with the comfortable luxuries of a hotel.

Hope knew that some cabins were smaller and could be rented cabana-style like one self-sufficient little apartment—or well, like a typical log cabin. Others were larger and housed up to four rooms. The furniture was much the same, but each cabin had its own style highlights and distinct décor.

She had booked into the largest building because she loved the socializing aspect of it and didn’t need a whole cabin for herself anyway. And she was as excited about it as a kid on Christmas—not least because she would finally meet her long-time online friend.

The path grew wider as the forest gave way to bushes and undergrowth, which in turn lightened into a generous clearing on the summit of the hill.

There it was, Pleasant View, and it literally took her breath away for a moment.

The central building beckoned ahead, two stories high and with a double-doored entrance but in the inimitable log-cabin style. The timber-framed structure with its posts and beams of fir wood rose into the wide afternoon sky, the warm lights from inside spilling out onto the slopes and the driveway with an SUV parked to the right. She recalled that the upper floor housed the restaurant, which was connected to a roofed terrace with wooden furniture, giving the place a rustic fairytale feel. The high windows would probably afford guests a stunning view. A tall chimney on the roof and a nearby wooden shack that was probably used for storage completed the inviting picture. To the left and right of the main building with its wooden signboard and cheerfully gabled roof stood the guest cabins, squat and inviting. Her friend had told her once that a bigger log cabin with small rooms, about ten minutes walking distance from the main building, served as staff quarters and also housed Vinu herself.

“Are you planning on staring long enough for your feet to take root in the ground?” her rescuer’s gruff voice interrupted her awed contemplation.

Hope’s retort was drowned out by the sound of hurried footsteps and a voice shouting her name.

“Hope! Thank god, you’re here.”

Her friend ran out of the door and all the way to her, arms opened wide. Hope felt the stranger let go of her to step back and barely had enough time to catch her balance before Vinu enveloped her in a bear hug. Both of them were on the short and curvy side, though Vinu had inherited the caramel skin tone, dark eyes and nearly black hair of her Asian father.

“I was worried sick what might’ve happened to you,” her friend said, still holding her tight.

When she pulled back a little, Hope swayed and half-suppressed a whimper, and Vinu’s face went from joy and relief to worry in a heartbeat.

“Are you all right? What happened?”

Cringing and blushing with embarrassment, Hope told her little story and motioned towards her savior, who had skulked off several feet to lurk, shoulders hunched and face hidden.

Eyes wide, clutching Hope’s hand tightly, Vinu turned towards him.

“Oh, Mr…” she stopped herself short with a grimace. “C, thank you ever so much for helping my friend. I’ll be eternally indebted to you. Can I send something up to your room as a thank you? Or would you like to sit in the lobby while I have someone rustle something to eat and drink up for you? Oh, and just keep Ms. Parker’s baggage here, we’ll take care of it all.”

All efficiency and high-wattage smile, Vinu dug a phone out of her pocket to alert her staff while the man grumbled something intelligible and jerked his thumb at the second-largest building. She thought she heard the word ‘room’, and then he was gone, leaving Hope blinking at his broad retreating back and mentally kicking herself for not having thanked him as well.

Her friend turned back to her. “I should’ve known you wouldn’t come the normal way like all the other guests,” she said with a grin.

Hope grinned back and lifted her hand for a high five. “Normal is…”

“Boring!” completed Vinu, slapping her palm only lightly so she wouldn’t upset her precarious balance.

She sent some soft, concise orders her staff’s way before looping her arm around Hope and escorting her into the welcome warmth. Pushing her down onto a mighty comfortable sofa with a plaid pattern, she held up a finger.

“Now you sit right here and wait until I get you a welcome drink. Rest and have a look around—but don’t get up just yet. I’ll call the on-site nurse to have a look at your rebellious foot.”

In the blink of an eye, she was gone, and Hope chuckled. And people told her she had too much energy and fussed too much… Then again, it was part of Vinu’s job to take charge and fuss.

She leaned back gratefully and watched her friend flit around like a bee, just as busy and efficient. Vinu wore a cream-colored woolen turtle-neck dress and ankle boots; no jewelry, but a decorative watch and a nametag that informed everyone that she was the owner and resident manager. It was actually a position too high for her to be practically involved in all the every-day things, but she’d told Hope that she felt odd confining herself to the office. Instead, she observed and supported, and above all made sure that her guests were felt welcome and were all treated as individuals meriting special attention.

Was it any wonder that the Pleasant View was already receiving rave reviews? It was off season, so Vinu had lamented that they lacked enough bookings, but they had several reservations for the future, and it seemed that every day, more and more attention was paid to the promising new bed & breakfast so close to the Yoho National Park.

Hope feasted her eyes on the warm earthen tones and fiery highlights in yellow, orange and red that gave the light-filled lobby a multi-layered charm and an illusion of grandness. There was an open fireplace, currently not in use because it hadn’t cooled down much. She knew that the paintings on the wall were all by local residents, as was most of the décor. Vinu also supported the community by relying on their produce and hiring them for almost all services and amenities.

It seemed only a minute or two had passed before her friend strode back to her side, carrying a small tray with a steaming mug bearing the hotel logo—a silhouetted mountain with a log cabin beneath it.

“Hot chocolate with a dash of vanilla and cinnamon.” She held the tray out, and Hope stifled a squeal.

“Oh my god, you remembered my favorite!”

“Of course I did.” Vinu set the tray down and plonked herself onto the sofa next to her. “It’s what I do. Observe and remember. And wheedle and cajole, eh.” She laughed, but grew serious the very next moment.

“Seriously, I was freaking out something might have happened to you. But now I’m freaking out in a totally different way because you’re finally here and I can’t believe it.”

Hope nodded. “I think we gotta pinch each other or something.”

They did just that, giggling like schoolgirls for a moment.

The fragrant steam rising to tickle her nostrils tempted her into taking a first sip, and she moaned at the blissful warmth and the heavenly taste.

“Christ, Vinu, if you serve me another of those I’ll have to resign my post and move here for good.”

“You won’t hear me complaining!”

They were interrupted by a woman in casual clothes, carrying a doctor’s bag and looking all business. Must be the on-site nurse. Hope remembered Vinu telling her that the remote location and terrain made it necessary to have someone with medical knowledge close by and comply with the safety regulations of the hospitality trade.

The woman bustled over and expertly checked Hope’s foot, clucking and scowling. Five minutes later, she was gone with the advice to keep the ankle elevated and not put too much weight on it, and she’d left a packet of pain killers too.

“On the house,” Vinu insisted, then held up a finger to silence Hope’s protests. “You wouldn’t allow me to let you stay at the inn for free, so you’ll have to suck it up and let me lavish all sorts of extras on you.”

Hope gritted her teeth. She was always the one giving, caring, persuading. It had taken her a long time to let her friends do the same for her, and it was still difficult to accept that she had a right to receive kindness, not just give it to others.

“Only if you let me drag you into town and treat you to something extravagant. We’ve never had the chance to splurge together. And I think Andrea will join us too.”

This time, Vinu did squeal, albeit not loud enough to disturb the old lady sitting by the window, so absorbed in her knitting that she appeared to be living on a separate planet.

“Deal. Now let’s get you to your room so you can freshen up and rest your ankle.” She helped Hope up and led her outside, firing a dozen questions at her that kept her distracted from the twinges of pain and humiliation.

“There you go, this is you.” Vinu swiped the key card embossed with a grizzly bear and room number and opened the door with a flourish. “This one’s the Brown Bliss room.”

The name made sense. Wooden furniture dominated the room, neither too grand nor too rustic. Everything else was in some shade of brown, ranging from the lightest beige to fawn and hazel, chocolate and coffee. Vintage nature photographs in sepia complemented the look alongside wooden lampshades with intricate embellishments.

Vinu went around explaining things, but Hope found herself barely listening. She soaked it all up, basking in it and wondering idly how a room in a bed & breakfast in the Canadian Rockies could immediately feel like home.

When she tuned back in, she heard her friend say, “You’ve basically got the building to yourself, if you disregard Mr. Incognito, or should I say, C. There’s a small common room at the end of the corridor, though you’re more than welcome to settle down in the lobby instead.”

“Mr. Incognito?” That had to be her mysterious savior.

Her friend nodded, fussing with the curtains and looking pensive. “He’s…well, famous. And in hiding. So I’m the only one who knows his real identity. The staff has been asked to leave him in peace.”

Curiosity gnawed at Hope. “Won’t you give me a hint? A tiny one? After all, I basically let the man carry me here.”

Chagrin was written all over Vinu’s expressive face. “No can do, sorry. Privacy is a crucial issue in all hotels anyway, and this guest depends on my ability—and promise—to keep a secret.”

She made sure that Hope’s baggage had been brought up, then lit a scented candle in a pretty glass bowl. The delicate fragrance of vanilla mingled with the scents of wood and winter.

“My favorite drink and my favorite smell! I may just have to overlook your gender and marry you!” Hope dropped onto the bed with its mighty comfortable mattress and winked at the other girl, who blushed and winked back.

“Someone might object.”

Dismissing the protest with a wave of her hand, Hope ran a hand over the lovingly embroidered bed runner in shades of russet and caramel. “Richard wouldn’t care if I married a whole harem.”

Vinu snorted and sat down next to her. She kicked off her ankle boots and settled down more comfortably, tucking her legs beneath her. “I didn’t mean Douchebag.”

It took Hope a moment to decipher her expression and the meaning behind her words. With a gasp, she grabbed her friend’s hand.

“Wait a minute, wait a minute. Does that mean what I think it means? Are you dating someone? Why didn’t I know?”

Blushing even more, the half-Asian girl averted her eyes. When she met Hope’s gaze again, they were deep and shiny, and a realization dawned: this wasn’t just about dating; Vinu was in love. But happily so?

“Nobody knows. You’re the first I’ve told. We’re keeping it a secret, for now.”

All sorts of scenarios starting playing out in Hope’s head. One day, her vivid imagination would be the death of her; or maybe it would push her to finally write that novel her friends were always urging her to pen.

“Sweetie, I’m so happy for you. Well okay, a bit mad too, because you’ve obviously kept me in the dark for a while. But yeah, immensely happy. But why are you two hiding?”

Was he married? Hope gulped, then wanted to kick herself for even entertaining that notion. Her friend would never date someone else’s man! Was he someone famous?

“Oh my god, don’t tell me it’s Mr. Incognito!”

“What?!” Vinu started so hard she nearly toppled off the bed. Then she laughed until Hope couldn’t help joining in and they were wheezing and dashing away tears.

“Hell no. Though I’ll admit he’s prime dating material, once you know who lurks behind the hoodie. Nope, it’s definitely not Mr. Prowl, Growl and Scowl.”

That set them off laughing again till they sprawled on the bedspread, holding their stomachs. Hope loved the play on words and how perfectly it encapsulated her mysterious savior with his sourly presence. She poked her friend in the ribs softly.

“Spill the beans. Or should you rather not?”

Vinu sobered up and rubbed her temple. “I want to let you know. It’s been killing me to keep it from you for this long.”

She took a deep breath. “Remember the guest I mentioned a few months ago who stayed here to write?”

Scrunching up her face, Hope mulled that over. “Oh. Oh… Yeah, I do. You did mention him quite a bit.”

Despite her complexion, another flush made itself known on the young woman’s face. “Did I? I’m sure I did. I fell head over heels for him. You know I can’t resist those quiet, nerdy, brooding types anyway.”

They shared a giggle and eyebrow wiggle. “Anyway, he was one of my first guests. And that basically made him off limits because it’s strictly forbidden for hotel staff to…uhm…fraternize with the guests.”

“You’re not hotel staff, you own this place,” Hope interrupted, which made Vinu grimace, then grin. “That’s what I told myself too…and what he ultimately convinced me of.”

Hope sat up, eyes wide. “I want all the details.”

Vinu slapped both hands over her face, speaking through her fingers. “I knew I shouldn’t have told you,” she groused, but there was a smile in her voice.

The opening chords of ‘Heaven’ by Bryan Adams rang out, and it was Vinu’s turn to sit up. “Sorry, duty calls.” She leaned over to give Hope a quick, fierce hug. “Settle down. Call me if you need anything, or let reception know by dialing 1 on the intercom.”

She was half out of the room with the phone at her ear by the time Hope had managed to blurt out ‘thanks’ and ‘bye’.

Shaking her head to herself, she settled back down and smiled. Her friend was clearly cut out for this kind of job. She was overjoyed that fate had dealt Vinu this favorable hand, even more so because the young woman had never had it easy. As the child of a Canadian father and a Sri Lankan mother, Vinu was born in this country and raised in it—unlike her elder sister who was conceived during a first marriage to a Sri Lankan man who’d drunk himself to an early grave. While Varuni chafed and complained, and never really fit in, Vinu slid into her mixed-ethnicity skin like a fish into water. English was her native tongue, and most of her views were ‘Western’ too, although she had never shied away from her Asian roots and spent many a holiday on the exotic, little island in the Indian Ocean.

Mixed marriages were common in Canada—but her parents’ hadn’t worked out for long. When Vinu was eleven years old, her mother filed for divorce and left to stay with her own family in Sri Lanka. The soft-hearted girl grew up basically overnight, making it her new goal to replace the women their household had lost. Faced with the choice to migrate with her mother or stay with her father, she opted for the country she’d always called home.

Hope had often asked Vinu whether she regretted her decision, and over the years of their friendship, the answer had always been ‘no’—although the separation from not only her mother but also her elder sister Varuni couldn’t have been easy. Living alone with her father made her see things from an adult point of view early on, and Hope still noticed the traces of her difficult childhood. There was something innately serious and responsible about the young woman, a steely will clothed in inherent kindness, a melancholic gaze combined with a practical way of approaching whatever obstacle was thrown in her way. Being an innkeeper seemed to suit her, as if she’d shed her old skin to come into her own in this new, shinier one that was still her to the core yet somewhat different.

Hoping the new mystery man would cherish her friend, Hope raised the cup to her lips again and settled on thoughts what she would do the next few days, with and without Vinu.



Chapter 3


The sound of laughter filtered over, muffled but unmistakable.

Colby grimaced into his afternoon coffee and shifted on the bed. He should’ve booked an entire log cabin for himself so nobody could invade his privacy. But he’d thought that would draw attention to himself, so he’d opted for a room in the bigger building of the inn. He’d banked on it being off season, and the place was indeed almost deserted. Ever since he’d checked in last week, they’d had one family with a rambunctious five-year-old staying in one of the cabins, but they’d been so busy hiking and then stuffing themselves with enough food for three families that they hadn’t bothered Colby at all. Then that forever knitting old lady who smiled brightly at everyone and ate like a sparrow.

And day before yesterday this woman had checked in, occupying the room at the far corner of the building.

He shifted his weight again, stretching one leg and bending the other to lean against the headboard more comfortably.

Hopefully, the injured ankle would ensure that the new guest stayed in her room most of the time. He didn’t want her traipsing around and stumbling on him. It had taken him two days after check-in to finally venture out of his room and explore the area without fear of being recognized or disturbed; he’d—somewhat foolishly—claimed the viewpoint as his own spot. Of course it was for all the guests, but he didn’t want her there, talking non-stop and turning those big, bright, soulful eyes on him.

Gulping the last mouthful of the bitter, milk-less liquid, Colby set his cup down and crossed his arms.

The babbling redhead wasn’t a normal guest; he remembered what she’d said, and his observations tied in neatly with that. She was clearly friends with Vinu, the inn’s owner. The two of them seemed inseparable, from what he could glean. They’d had dinner together in the restaurant last evening, and he’d stayed an oddly long while watching them before deciding he should opt for room service and barricade himself in the safe anonymity of his quarters.

Colby loved observing people. He’d been an energetic but somewhat awkward kid, and never paid anyone much heed. Then puberty and family tragedy had hit hard, and anxiety had decided to knock him out while he was already down. It was his anxiety that had prompted him to pay more heed to his surroundings. If he couldn’t figure out how to handle a situation without freaking out, he watched others and sought a smidgeon of sanity by emulating their behavior.

Over the course of the years, observing had become second nature—and it was one of the reasons why he was so good at acting. He saw, he analyzed, he imitated. And he got by, more or less. And because he was an observer, he grew more and more disillusioned with society. There was so much pretending. Hiding. Donning invisible masks and re-inventing.

Perhaps it was more pronounced in his industry, but he doubted it. Surely not just the famous Hollywood actors and all the other big names faked their way through life? He couldn’t remember the last time when he’d heard genuine laughter, seen real tears, experienced unconditional love.

Maybe that was why he was drawn to these two friends like a moth to a flame. Why he’d crawled out of his hiding place to eat breakfast in the restaurant and watch them, all chipper and chirpy in the morning and sticking their heads together to make plans or share secrets or whatever it was that women talked about when they got together with close friends.

Sure, he had friends too. But he didn’t make them easily, and they were few and far between. Dave was one. Then there was Pete, who knew him since preschool and still treated him like the lanky, mischievous and somewhat uncoordinated kid from around the corner. His brother Simon was his friend, as well. All the others were acquaintances. People he liked well enough and valued but who knew only whatever little of the real Colby Williams he was willing to share with them.

These two young women, on the other hand, had never even met before but appeared to rely on blind trust and a level of intimacy that was astonishing, all the more so because the friendship had been formed online.

Colby shook his head, then tensed when he heard a door open. Two sets of footsteps passed by his door, one of them with a limp. It looked like a sore ankle wasn’t much of a deterrent for this woman who packed enough energy for two.

He’d watched her more than the innkeeper, to be honest. The way the light glinted on her red hair and picked out a hint of copper and gold here and there. The way she clapped both hands over her mouth to laugh, her whole body shaking. The way she gesticulated when she talked. He did that too, whenever he got animated about a topic, whenever he truly cared. But he’d taught himself to be sparser with his gestures, more cautious with his words—not only in front of the camera. There was always someone who would misconstrue things, twist his words or read too much meaning into them and spin a tale out of them. Why the hell had he let himself be molded and re-adjusted, confined and contained?

With a soft curse, Colby pushed himself off the bed and rooted around for comfy jogging clothes. He’d been cooped up for too long; he was getting ridiculously philosophical. This wasn’t him, the brooding and skulking, the festering dissatisfaction that ate at him from the inside. How had he let things come this far?


* * *


He was weird. This whole thing was weird.

Hope scrunched up her nose and dug her fork a little too viciously into her caramel pudding with chocolate sauce and cashew nuts.

For someone who was so intent on hiding his identity, C was awfully watchful. Did he think if he paid other people a lot of attention, he could forget that he wanted to avoid attention at all cost?

She wasn’t one for observing people; most of the time, she was too busy interacting with them, getting to know them better, making them happy. Sure, it wasn’t easy to get on her good side—but once someone had won her over, they’d never get rid of her again. And she did think she was a good people reader. But what was it about this man that infuriated and intrigued her in equal measure?

He seemed ever-present since yesterday, as if something had woken the lumbering bear from his hibernation and drawn him out of his cave, leaving him bad-tempered but desperate to at least make the most of it. And in his surprising eagerness to observe, he’d let down his guard. She wondered whether he knew that he wasn’t putting his hoodie up to cover his face, that he was exchanging a few sentences with Vinu off and on.

At the moment, he was sitting in the restaurant, dressed in the nondescript, casual clothes people wore for jogs in the park or walks to the gym. Like yesterday, no matter what time and weather, huge, darkly tinted sunglasses hid his eyes and part of his face, which was a shame. There was so much to glean from a person’s eyes, especially things that were deliberately not betrayed by a facial expression. Hope had caught herself wondering what his eyes might look like. Blue, she decided on impulse. They’d be blue and fringed with spiky lashes, deep pools to drown in, with eye crinkles when he laughed. But did he ever laugh? She hadn’t so much as seen him crack a thankful smile at the waitress or at Vinu.


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