Excerpt: Bluebells on the Hill

Bluebells on the Hill by Barbara McMahon

Book One: Cowboy Heroes Series

Chapter One

Amanda Smith alighted from the bus, shocked as the heat of the day engulfed her. She’d been traveling in comfort for hours, even verging on being too cool, as the bus had sped its way eastward from the coast. Aware of the brightness of the cloudless day through the tinted windows, but not the heat, she’d given no thought to the temperature until she plunged into it. The hot noonday sun shone down with searing rays, the lack of breeze ensuring that the heat hung close to the earth. A far cry from the cool San Francisco Bay she’d left earlier this morning.

Looking around, she smiled, almost giddy with delight to finally be here.

Twice before she’d passed through Timber, California. Now she was here for a long visit, to look into the possibilities of settling here on a semi-permanent basis. As much as her job would permit.

The small main street shimmered beneath the relentless sun, heat waves distorting the shop fronts and reflecting non-existent puddles on the asphalt road. Slowly she walked along the side of the bus, awaiting the driver who would unload her suitcases. Unload hers alone, it appeared, as no one else had disembarked. Once done, he’d drive on.

The depot for Timber consisted of a small wooden attachment to the gas station: one window for tickets, a wooden bench serving as the waiting area. What did a person do in the rain? she wondered idly as she waited for her luggage.

“I’ll have your things in a jiffy, miss.” The bus driver joined her on the hot pavement. With a quick jerk, he opened the side panel, revealing the capacious luggage compartment. Reaching among the bags, he unerringly pulled out her large, plaid, soft-sided suitcase, and the battered guitar case.

“These all, right, miss?”

“Yes, thanks.” Amanda took them from him.

Slamming down the compartment door, he sketched a small salute and returned to the bus. Amanda turned and approached the ticket window. She’d passed through this small mountain town before, across the narrow bridge on the approach to Timber–a concrete structure spanning the Mokelumne River, connecting Timber with the western part of the state. This time, though, she was not passing through. She was stopping. Staying.

Her blonde hair absorbing the heat, Amanda felt the full strength of the sun beating through to her scalp. Perspiration beaded on her forehead, ran between her breasts. She took a deep breath. It didn’t help; the air was hot.

Dropping her suitcase and case near the wooden building, she turned to watch the bus as it lumbered down the street and began its climb as the highway wound upwards, heading north, to greater heights.

For a town named Timber, the most notable aspect of the trees was the lack of them. True, at the city limits, the Sierra forest began, but within sight there were few trees, none of great size or age. Her eyes followed the bus until it rounded the bend and was lost from view. She brought her gaze closer.

The town was small. This she had known, but the actual sight of it from the ground only emphasized its limits. From the furthermost building to the bus depot where she was standing didn’t cover two city blocks in length, if that. She could see the entire town from her vantage point.

Of course, that was what she was seeking. A small community, as different from the cities she had been working in as she could find. This place was perfect. Few cars, no garish neon signs, and only a couple of buildings taller than a single story. Smiling involuntarily, Amanda felt a warm welcoming flow through her, a strong feeling of nostalgia, of deja vu, and of homecoming.

The fronts to the various stores and shops were irregular and without pattern. Two were two- storied, others low, still others with a high facade masking their small status. Red was a popular color; she counted five stores painted red. White was predominant in others, with beige, blue and yellow also in evidence. There was even a brick building to her left, an unusual sight in the Sierra Nevada.

“Can I help you?”

She turned to find a small, wizened man at the ticket window gravely studying her.

“Is there somewhere I can leave my luggage for a while?” she asked, indicating the pieces lying by her feet.

“Sure, put them on the bench. I’ll keep an eye on them for you. They’ll be okay there.”

Frowning with hesitation, she looked at the bench, out of direct view from his window. Then she glanced down the sleepy street. The few people in sight on the pavements chatted easily with one another, calling out friendly greetings, nodding as they passed. No one was interested in her or her luggage.

She turned back. “Thank you, I won’t be too long.” Pushing the heavy suitcase against the building, she rested the guitar case against it. With a smile, she turned back to the ticket agent.

“I’ll watch ’em, miss, don’t you fret.” He looked like somebody’s grandfather.

She nodded, hitching her shoulder bag up higher. Again she surveyed the town, this time seeking a specific place, slowly moving to an establishment which caught her eye.

“Gold Country Properties,” the sign hanging before the large window proclaimed. It was faded, weathered, hanging from rusty chains, stationary in the hot sun. A dozen or so photos were taped to the window, each a picture of a house, or an expanse of land, presumably for sale.

She pushed on the glass door; it opened inward and she immediately felt the blessed coolness. There were only two people in the office: a gray-haired man seated behind a desk in the rear of the large room, and an equally gray-haired woman seated opposite him. While there were three other desks in the office, with evidence of occupation, computers, phones, maps, open survey books, their owners were absent. Perhaps showing property.

Amanda wasn’t sure the couple in the rear had heard her and she waited patiently for them to finish. The older woman was speaking; she had a loud, whiny voice.

“… but not to Mac. I’m absolutely adamant about that, Martin. Not to Mac!”

“Be reasonable, Cora.” The man was patient, as one who had been over this before. “No one else will take it. If you’re leaving, why do you care who gets it? Take what money you can get and go on along to Phoenix. Julie’ll be so glad to have you close. Forget us here.”

“No, Martin, not to Mac.” She was firm. “How do you know no one else will take it? Advertise and find out.”

“Cora, if I advertise, I have to sell it to whoever offers the best price. It’s the law. I cannot refuse to accept an offer just because it comes from someone you don’t like.”

“Then don’t advertise,” she muttered.

“Then nobody will know it’s available and you’ll never get it sold.” He leaned back in his chair. “It’s not worth much anyway. The house is old and small, away from town, no near neighbors, few amenities, surrounded by trees and precious little else. You’ll be hard pressed to find anyone who wants a place like that Cora, be realistic.”

“I might be interested,” Amanda spoke up.

The woman swiveled round to see who had spoken. The man leaned sideways in his chair to see around Cora. They saw the young woman by the door. She was tall, thin. Skinny, almost, the man thought. Her dark blond hair was drawn back in a single plait down her back. Large tinted glasses hid her expression like a mask.

“Who are you?” the woman named Cora asked.

“My name’s Mandy Smith.” The young woman walked back.

“Not from around here, are you, miss?” the man asked, his tone more cordial than Cora’s. She could be, her faded jeans, scuffed boots and cotton shirt the same attire everyone wore nowadays. Everybody young, that was.

“No, but I’m interested in settling here. I came in to find a place.”

He looked at her for a moment, rubbing his chin, obviously phrasing his words carefully. “The, uh, place in question is for sale, not for rent.”

“Yes, so I gathered from your conversation. I would like to see it. I might be interested.”

“It’s out of town a few miles,” he said.

“With no near neighbors and lots of trees,” she repeated.

“Yes, that’s right, girl,” the old woman said. “It’s a mite run down, needs a little work, but it’s real pleasant to sit out on the porch and hear the breeze rustle through the trees in the evening.” She turned back to the man. “Take her up, Martin. Let her see what it’s like.”

“There’s nobody here, Cora, to answer the phone. I can’t just leave.”

“I’ll answer them, if they ring. Just till Dottie comes back. Go on, Martin. Miss Smith might want it.”

“It’s for sale,” Martin said again, as if explaining an important fact to a child.

“Don’t let my clothes mislead you,” Amanda said gently. “If I like it, I can afford it.”

“Go on, Martin,” Cora urged.

“Okay, Okay.” He rose, picked up his hat from the nearby rack and came around his desk. “Okay, young lady, we’ll go see it. Mind the phone, Cora.”

Amanda preceded him from the office, pausing on the pavement. “I don’t have a car.”

“No problem, we’ll go in mine. This way.” Martin led the way up the street a few yards. Opening the door of a dusty dark blue SUV, he motioned her in.

“I’m Martin Roberts, I own the realty firm.” He nodded back to the office as he climbed into the vehicle. “Sales are picking up a little, now that summer’s started. My other people are out showing property. Mostly to weekenders,” he tacked on as an afterthought.

He started the engine.

Martin Roberts didn’t talk as they drove through Timber. No hard sales pitch here, Amanda thought, amused. Not that she wanted one; she was content to gaze out the window, watching for landmarks and enjoying the scenery as they left the town’s buildings behind and sped along the highway that cut through the forest, following the route the bus had taken only a short time before.

Immediately the air felt cooler, the difference between the hot town and the cooler highway due to the lofty trees enclosing the asphalt strip, sheltering it, shading it, as it slashed its way up the mountain.

It was only a few minutes before Martin slowed to turn into a dirt and gravel side-road. Not so far out of town. Too far to walk, obviously, but less than five minutes by car.

“This leads to Cora’s place.” She only has a small house and an acre or so of land. All the rest here belongs to Mac. His land completely encircles Cora’s. This road’s an easement. No problem getting to and from the highway. Got electricity and city water and sewer.’

Amanda listened to his description, his explanations, smiling at the ‘city water’ phrase. Well, to each his own. If the folks of Timber considered Timber a city, why not? It certainly was not like the cities she was familiar with, but no matter.

Amanda wondered again why Cora was so adamant about refusing to sell to this Mac. It would make sense to sell to him, to enable the land to become part of the property which surrounded it. To have a ready, willing buyer, rather than depend upon chance. Maybe this property wouldn’t be for her after all. Maybe Mac would still get it.

“Why won’t Cora sell it to Mac?” she asked aloud.

“Old family feud. Cora wants to go to Arizona to be near her daughter. Needs to sell this place, but because of something that happened years ago, she refuses to sell it to Mac. Too bad, it’s the logical thing.”

There were tall Ponderosa pines, Douglas firs and California cedars growing on both sides of the road. A mature madrone whose branches spread across the drive shelter the opening to a pretty, gently sloping, grassy meadow on the left. Ahead, a smaller, rutted track branched off to the right. Martin turned on to it and stopped.

The house was more like a mountain cabin, old and tired. A chunk was missing from part of the roof near the left edge. The front was faded and shabby. Its large wooden deck gave the place its only attractive feature, yet it, too, needed repair.

Amanda stared at it, intrigued. It looked forlorn and forgotten. She thought that Cora lived in it, but it was hard to believe. There was a definite air of desertion about the place. Perhaps Cora had abandoned it, had given up caring, knowing it was only a question of time before she left.

Amanda felt an unaccustomed stirring of anticipation. Maybe she could fix it up. Make it pretty and … and happy again. It would definitely be a change from her current life. A welcomed change, plus new challenge. In that instant she knew she wanted it, would have it if at all possible. Too bad for Mac; this property would be hers!

There were three steps up to the front deck. Amanda followed Martin into the cabin, eager to see the rest of the place. The living room was a good size, easily half the house. To the left, a large pot-bellied stove would provide heat in the colder months. Near the door to the kitchen, Cora had placed a table and chairs for a dining area. The furniture was old and worn, the padded chair seats faded to nondescript gray. Amanda glanced around, ideas spinning. A few coats of paint, some bright spots of color here and there, would turn it all around. Very little work, really, if the structure were sound.

“Bedroom’s through here.” Martin led the way.

Definitely not a hard sell, that’s for sure, Amanda thought again. Well, if she bought it, it would certainly be all her own doing. She’d have no one else to blame.

There were two bedrooms, one smaller one with a single bed. She peeked in. It was fairly clean, though plain. No pictures on the walls, bare floor and dirty windows. The master bedroom was larger, with windows on two walls, but not much more in the way of decorations.

The trees did not grow as densely behind the cabin as in front. Amanda moved to see the view from the back. The land gradually inclined upward, opening to a grassy meadow. She felt her throat tighten at the beauty before her. The hill was losing its rich spring green color as the summer took hold, browning the grass. It was still quietly pretty. A short distance from the house, to the right, a bank of bluebells nodded in the afternoon sun. As Amanda’s eyes traveled further, she took in the deep green of the rising pines and top-heavy cedars contrasting sharply with the pale, brassy blue of the cloudless sky.

“I like this place,” she said softly. She looked around the room and smiled. Returning to the living room, she gazed out of the smudged window at the trees that grew so straight, so tall, with dark bark and two shades of green, the lighter new growth in contrast to the older darker tone. What a difference from city concrete. She crossed over to the sofa and sat down, regarding Martin deliberately.

“Does the furniture come with the place?”

He stared down at her in disbelief. ‘You’re serious? You’d consider this place?’ He looked around as if trying to see what would appeal to anyone.

“Yes, I’m serious. Is the furniture included?”

He sank down on a nearby chair. “I don’t know. We can ask Cora. Mac won’t like it, though, if Cora sells to someone else.” He shook his head.

“I’m sure Mac will survive,” she said drily. “Cora’s evidently been here some time.”

“Yes, but if he knew she was planning to leave, he’d sure try to get this place.” Martin waved his hand. “All the surrounding land is his. This would fill it in.”

She nodded. “So you said. How much?”

“I don’t know.” Martin hesitated. “Seventy-five?”

Narrowing her eyes in consideration, Amanda did not answer right away. Finally, “Okay, if Cora leaves the furniture, and the structural inspection passes.”

He nodded. “We can see. I can have the inspection done tomorrow.” He took out a handkerchief and mopped his forehead, pushing his hat back to reach his brow. Replacing his hat, he stood. “Want to see around the property?”

“Of course!” Amanda rose eagerly. How much of the land would be hers? How large was five acres?

They tramped around the cabin, Martin remaining quiet during most of the tour, only pointing out boundaries when they reached them. The more Amanda took in the property, the more she wanted it. What was it that gave her such a sense of homecoming? She was not even a native Californian, yet she felt as if she belonged; as if the mountains were calling her home.

Neither spoke on the short drive back to town. Martin had a look of growing disapproval on his face. Amanda mentally reviewed her property. There’d even been a small stream cutting through one corner of her land. She was already calling it hers. She hoped Cora would be agreeable to the terms. If not, she shrugged, there would be other properties.

Yes, but with bluebells nodding on the hill? With a stream running through it? She shook her head. Cora had to sell!

Cora looked up eagerly from the magazine she was reading when they returned, still the only occupant of the office. “Well, did you like it? Do you want it?”

Amanda smiled at her. “I did like it and I’d be interested in it. If,” she cautioned, “it’s structurally sound. Also, if you would consider leaving the furniture.”

Cora’s face clouded. “Oh, the furniture. I don’t know. I hadn’t thought about it.” She fell quiet while Martin went to take his chair. Amanda moved to sit at his desk, in the chair next to Cora.

“Landsakes, nothing there worth much. I will need to take the sofa and one bed, but the table and other bed can stay. If you want them, have them,” Cora decided.

“When can I take possession?” Amanda asked Martin.

“Well, that depends,” Martin said slowly. “First we have to get the credit approvals, then the bank does the credit check, appraisal.” He doodled figures on his notepad.

“Probably a month or so, if all goes well.”

“So long?” Cora whined. “I want go sooner than that.”

“I don’t need a credit check,” Amanda said quietly, “I plan to write a check.”

Two pair of eyes stared at her.

“Write a check,” Cora repeated.

“I thought the price we discussed was seventy-five thousand dollars,” Martin said, jogging her memory.

Cora’s eyes widened at the figure mentioned, but she kept quiet.

“Yes, with furniture. I’d like possession as soon as possible, if the inspection’s all right. Not,” she was firm, “in a month.”

Martin was at a loss for words.

“I can write the check now, and you can call my bank for verification of funds. I have identification.” She was matter-of-fact, assured, taking her check book from her purse. She took a pen from Martin’s desk and began to write. Before signing her name, she paused and looked up.

“I do have another condition, in addition to the furniture. I don’t want it to get out how I purchased the house.”

Cora shook her head, her expression still one of stunned disbelief. Write a check for a house!

“No, we won’t say anything,” Martin added.

“I’d like to move in as soon as I can,” Amanda said, signing her name with a flourish. “Do I make it payable to Cora or the real estate firm?”

“First Title Trust Company. They’ll handle escrow, though I don’t think they have ever had a house paid for all at once before,” Martin said, still looking a bit shell-shocked.

When Amanda had filled in the name she ripped the check from her book and handed it across. Martin took the check and looked at it. Glancing at his watch, he pulled the phone closer and dialed the number of the bank printed on the face of the check.

Amanda sat calmly watching him as he spoke, the tinted glasses hiding her expression.

Cora licked her lips. Her eyes darted from the check to Amanda, and back to Martin as he identified himself, asked for verification, and waited for a senior bank official to respond to his questions. While Cora was on edge as the minutes dragged by, Amanda sat serene and quiet. Inside she was almost dancing a jig. Who knew she’d find a perfect solution the first minutes in town. It augured well for the future.

“Hello, Mr Fairfield, this is Martin Roberts. I’m a real estate broker. I have a check for a house that a Miss Amanda Smith wishes to purchase. I’m calling to verify the funds are in the account. Your teller forwarded my call to you.” He paused while the official on the other end spoke. “Sure, she’s tall and thin, with black hair. It’s long.” He peered at Amanda. “What color are your eyes?” he asked politely.

With an amused smile, she removed her tinted glasses, revealing beautiful, clear blue eyes, the dark lashes surrounding them needing no artificial aids to enhance their loveliness.

“Yes, Mr Fairfield, it’s her.” He spoke to the phone, but did not take his gaze from Amanda.

Cora looked at her, a puzzled frown on her face.

Martin’s eyes widened and he looked confused. “But … No, that’s fine. We just didn’t realize. Yes, of course. Thank you.” Slowly he replaced the receiver.

“Amanda,” he said, still looking at her. “Amanda.”

She inclined her head. “Yes, but I’m traveling, um, incognito as it were for the summer. The last few years have been very hectic. Exciting and fun, you realize, but tiring and a strain. I just want to relax, rest. Maybe write a song or two. Just be myself for a while.” She leaned forward in her chair. “Please help me get this a small place for myself in Timber, Mr Roberts. I’ll be a good neighbor. Just lend me some support. I want to be just plain Mandy Smith for a while. Not a celebrity, not sought after for what I do, but liked, or disliked, for myself. Just for myself. I want to be an ordinary person again, for a while. For a summer. Can you understand that, Mr Roberts?”

He nodded. “Martin,” he said, as if still in a daze.

“Would someone please tell me what is going on?” Cora broke in fretfully. “Is the check good?”

“Oh, yes, Cora. Today’s your lucky day. This check is very good. When you sign over your deed, the place becomes Miss Smith’s and you are seventy-five thousand dollars ahead-less my commission of course.”

Cora sat back. “I still can’t believe anyone can just write a check for that amount.”

“Anyone probably cannot. This is Amanda. I know you’ve heard her songs: Riverboat Gambler, Sing the Mountain Down.”

Cora’s head jerked round. “Is that true? Of course. I thought you looked familiar without the glasses. My granddaughter has some of your CDs. I always thought the photo of you had been touched up, but your eyes are real. You’re a right pretty gal, Miss Smith.”

Amanda smiled. “Thank you. My hair’s different, too,” she volunteered.

“Yes, I remember it as curly and wavy and sort of flailing around.”

“This is my disguise, such as it is. Do we have a deal, Mrs. Rosefeld?”

“We do indeed. We do indeed.” Cora turned a beaming face to Martin. “There, I knew I could sell it to someone other than Mac!” she said triumphantly.