Courtney Moss only came back to her quiet hometown of Virginia City, Montana, to clean out her grandmother’s attic–and she’s only attending the town Victorian Ball as a favor to a friend who’s helping her. But when she slips into an antique rose gown, she miraculously slips out of the modern world…and ends up in Virginia City during the gold rush. Heath Sullivan finds her locked in a shed–all dolled up and talking crazy. He’s never seen a woman like Courtney in a wild boomtown like this. Could she be telling the truth about being from somewhere in the future?
Heath doesn’t plan on sticking around to find out, no matter how beautiful she may be. And despite the comforting presence of this rugged stranger, Courtney certainly doesn’t intend to stay in 1864. But time after time, love seems to have a plan all its own…
Virginia City, Montana – Present Day
Courtney Moss pushed open the door to her grandmother’s attic and stared at the jumble of boxes, trunks, and cartons waiting for her attention. Heavy heat, trapped inside during the long summer, poured through the open door and beads of sweat immediately formed on her nose and upper lip. Her heart sank as she took in the layer of dust on every surface—dust so thick it was clearly visible in the dim light seeping in through windows covered with years of grime.
Lowering the bucket of cleaning supplies she’d lugged up three flights of stairs, Courtney shuddered at webs of uncertain origin hanging from corners, dangling from ceiling beams, and draped across the walls. She knew it sounded horrible to complain about having to sort through her grandmother’s possessions, but the timing truly couldn’t have been worse.
She was due in New York on the first of October—just a little over six weeks away. She should have been in Denver at that moment, putting the finishing touches on the collection of sketches that she hoped would land her the job creating cover art at Hendrickson Publishing. Instead, she was back in Montana, dealing with yet another crisis brought on by someone else’s neglect, taking care of things that should have been handled months ago.
She sagged against the door frame and glanced over her shoulder at Ryan Dennehy, her best friend since second grade and the one person in her life who’d never let her down. “I should have looked up here when I was in town for Grandmother’s funeral,” she admitted with sinking heart. “At least I’d have known what to expect. We’ll never get all this sorted before we have to vacate.”
Ryan’s dark eyes gleamed behind his horn-rimmed glasses and his narrow chin quivered with excitement. He’d come dressed for work in a pair of old jeans and the Aerosmith T-shirt he’d been wearing since high school. “Sure we will,” he said, following her gaze. He nudged his glasses a little higher onto his nose. “This place is amazing. I’ll bet your grandmother kept everything she ever owned.”
“That’s not good news just now.” Courtney wiped her sweaty palms on the seat of her jeans and nudged a box out of her way with her shin. Unfortunately, that dislodged several inches of dust, and that made her sneeze—not just once or twice, but half a dozen times at least. When she could speak again, she glowered over her shoulder. “Have I mentioned lately how much I resent Leslie for leaving all this for me to do?”
Ryan had covered his mouth and nose with the hem of his shirt to avoid choking on the cloud she’d created. Now he lowered it again and stepped onto the landing beside her. “Not within the last thirty seconds, but I don’t know why you’re surprised.”
Frankly, neither did she. At twenty-seven, she should have been old enough to let go of the childhood fantasies in which the woman who’d given birth to her finally began acting like a responsible human being. It wasn’t ever going to happen.
Just thinking about Leslie turned Courtney’s mood sour. “If I can’t pull a decent presentation together because of this…”
Ryan waved off her concerns. “Hey! Don’t worry. You brought your sketchbook, didn’t you?”
“Yes, but most of my work is back home.”
“So we’ll do as much as we can up here during the day, and you’ll work on your sketches at night. You can throw it all together in no time when you get home.” As if that had settled the question to everyone’s satisfaction, he swept his gaze across the room and grinned. “I can’t wait to find out what your grandmother was hiding away up here.”
Courtney reminded herself how grateful she was for Ryan’s help. She hadn’t seen him since her grandmother’s funeral six months earlier. Before that, it had been eight long years. He had no reason to put his own life on hold to help her, and yet he had. He hadn’t changed much from the nerdy second-grader who’d come to her rescue on her first day of school in a scary new place. He was still coming to her rescue—and he was still the only man alive she’dlet rescue her.
“I’d love to let you relish it,” she said with a grimace. “But we don’t have time to go through all this junk piece by piece.”
Ryan gasped and his hand flew to his chest. “Junk? I can’t believe you just said that! Everything here is valuable.”
Courtney reached for her bucket again. “Value is in the heart of the owner, and I can assure you there’s nothing I consider valuable anywhere in this house.”
“That’s only because you insist on holding a grudge.” Ryan sidled past her and stepped over several boxes to stand in the center of the room. “If you’d learn how to forgive your mother and grandmother, you’d feel differently.”
Courtney sent him a look of irritation that even the perpetually optimistic Ryan couldn’t fail to understand. She’d refused to use the word “mother” since the first time Leslie dropped her on her grandmother’s doorstep twenty years earlier and she resented anyone bestowing the undeserved honor on her now.
“I’m not angry with my grandmother,” she said for what surely must have been the millionth time since she’d known him. “I’m hurt. There’s a big difference. And that’s not going to change just because she’s gone.” She pulled a bandana from her back pocket and tied it over her hair. “As for forgiving Leslie, don’t hold your breath. She didn’t even bother to come to Grandmother’s funeral. She hasn’t called or written, and she won’t, either. Not unless Loser Number Twelve walks out on her.”
Ryan shrugged casually. “Maybe she’s afraid to call you.”
Courtney’s sudden, sharp-edged laugh echoed through the attic. “Afraid? No, Ryan. That would mean she cared. Besides, what would she have to be afraid of?”
Ryan gave his glasses another nudge. “Gee, I don’t know. . . Your reaction, maybe?”
“If she cared about my reaction,” Courtney said firmly, “she wouldn’t have dumped me on Grandmother’s doorstep every time she found a new boyfriend. She would have acknowledged the fact that Grandmother died in February and that she’s now my only living relative. She might even have sent me more than three cards to acknowledge a few of my twenty-seven birthdays. The only thing she’s afraid of is not having a man in her life. I doubt Number Twelve even knows that I exist.”
Just talking about Leslie made Courtney’s stomach knot. Leslie had never loved her. Her grandmother had taken her in each time the need arose, but she’d made her displeasure felt. In fact, Courtney had grown up feeling like an irritant—a pebble in someone’s shoe—and she’d lain awake nights as a girl, envying friends who knew they were loved and wanted, treasured members of close-knit families like Ryan’s.
She’d put all that longing behind her a long time ago, but she couldn’t help resenting having to put aside her own life now because Leslie couldn’t even be bothered to sort through her own mother’s effects. She had the very strong feeling that opening these boxes would rip apart defenses she’d struggled to put in place, and she wasn’t ready or willing to do that.
Ryan turned, saw the look on her face, and scowled gently. “Hey, you okay?”
Courtney waved off his question and stepped around a leaning stack of boxes to stand beside him. Ryan was the kindest man she’d ever known. He knew when to offer an opinion and when to shut up and listen. When to push and when to back off. He didn’t suffer from that annoying need to fix everything that plagued so many men or the disgusting habit of ogling other women that had been her last boyfriend’s trademark. If Ryan had been even slightlyinterested in women, Courtney might have made a play for him. Then again, if he’d been interested in women he wouldn’t have been Ryan, and she wouldn’t have felt the same way about him.
A web caught on the hem of her jeans and sent another shudder ripping through her. “I’m fine,” she said, trying to dislodge the filmy strings without actually touching them. “It’s not as if Grandmother and I were close.”
“I know. But she was still your grandmother.”
“Can we stop talking about my so-called family and just sort through this crap?” Courtney tossed a roll of garbage bags at him and peeled one from the roll she’d kept for herself. “I’ll appreciate this junk a whole lot more when it’s loaded on a truck and heading for the dump.”
Ryan caught the garbage bags in one hand. “That’s almost sacrilegious.”
“No, that’s honest.” She set her roll of bags aside and took another long look at the mess in front of her, hoping to get a handle on the task that lay ahead. “Why don’t we take these boxes down to the trash first?” she said, motioning toward a tilting stack near the door. “That will clear some room so we can maneuver the rest of this stuff out of here.” Without waiting for an answer, she hefted a box and started toward the door.
“You’re really not going to look at what’s inside?”
She didn’t miss the quick flash of disapproval on Ryan’s face, and that only made her mood worse. Even Ryan didn’t know how deeply Elizabeth’s disapproval had cut or how far into her heart the tendrils of Leslie’s disinterest reached. “It’s not as if Grandmother wanted me to have this stuff,” she pointed out reasonably. “It’s mine by default. So if you don’t mind, let’s just haul it out as fast as we can and be done with it.”
“Fine,” Ryan said with an elaborate shrug. “If you don’t mind throwing out pieces of the past that can never be regained, it shouldn’t bother me.”
Courtney turned her back on him. “Quit trying to manipulate me.”
“I’m not manipulating,” Ryan said firmly. “I’m stating facts. We don’t have to sort every single piece of paper, but we should at least open the boxes and see what’s inside. If it looks like we’ve found something valuable and you don’t want to deal with it, let me take it home. I’ll send you a check for everything I sell.”
Courtney rolled her eyes again, but Ryan had aimed straight at her Achilles heel—and scored a hit. Money and financial security. She’d lived from paycheck to paycheck her whole life and worn other people’s cast-off clothing until she was eighteen—and those were the times when she’d felt well-off. In the middle of her senior year in high school, when Leslie had been living in Arizona with Loser Number Eight and Elizabeth was being unnecessarily tight with money, Courtney had had an honest-to-God Scarlett O’Hara moment. On her knees in the back garden, fist to the sky, she’d vowed that she’d never be poor again, and she’d meant it.
But she wasn’t about to let Ryan know he’d hit the bull’s-eye. “Whatever,” she said with a casual shrug and tore open a box just to show him what a waste of time it was. She rifled through the contents and smiled with satisfaction at what she found. Dragging out a thick file folder, she wagged it in front of Ryan’s face. “Tax returns from the 1960’s. What do you think? Worth saving for posterity?”
Ryan held up a handful of papers from the box he’d been digging through. “Dance programs from the early twenties,” he countered. “Two very old silk fans in fantastic condition, and a bundle of letters postmarked during World War II. I’ll bet there’s stuff from at least three different centuries in this attic.”
Courtney tossed the tax returns back into the box and dragged it toward the door. “Whatever,” she said again. “Just make sure you keep your treasures away from my garbage. I’m not responsible for keeping it all straight.”
Ryan laughed and went to work, and other than an occasional murmur or grunt, they didn’t speak again until Ryan let out a whoop nearly two hours later. When Courtney turned to see what all the fuss was about, he held up a thick bundle of pink silk. “Look at this, Court. It looks like an old-fashioned ball gown.”
Courtney spared it a brief glance and turned away. “Fascinating.”
Ryan scrambled to his feet and shoved the thing at her. Smudges decorated his nose and chin, and one lens of his glasses sported a fingerprint in the center. “Hold it up, okay? Let me get a good look at it.”
She side-stepped him easily. “Come on, Ryan. We don’t have time to play with everything we find.”
“We’ve been working for hours, and this is the first thing I’ve done more than glance at. Indulge me.”
He was right, but it wasn’t in Courtney’s nature to lose arguments graciously. Sighing pointedly, she found the shoulders of the gown and held them up in front of her, letting yards and yards of skirt sweep to the floor.
Ryan cleaned his glasses with the hem of his shirt and let out a low whistle. “That,” he whispered, “is one spectacular dress.”
Deep inside, Courtney agreed with him. The rich silk shimmered, even in the low artificial light of the attic. The tiny stitches had obviously been taken by hand instead of machine, and the intricate beadwork on the low-cut bodice took her breath away, but she wasn’t willing to show signs of weakening.
With a nonchalant shrug, she started to set the gown aside. “It’s probably just one of the gowns Grandmother had made for the Victorian Ball. You know how much she liked going.”
Ryan eyed the fabric and Courtney with equal doubt. “You could be right, but it’s not a dress Iever saw her wear.” He touched the cloth reverently and leaned in for a closer look. “You know what? I don’t think this is a reproduction. Judging from the style, it could even be a gown somebody saved from that very first ball.”
“Back in eighteen-sixty-four?” Courtney carefully spread the gown across the tops of several boxes she’d dusted earlier. “But it can’t be. If it were authentic, it would be almost a hundred and fifty years old.” She stepped back and gave the gown a lingering once-over. “Maybe it was Leslie’s. It looks too big for Grandmother.”
“I thought one of Elizabeth’s big complaints was that Leslie never went to the ball with her.”
“That doesn’t mean she never had a gown made. Leslie was her only child, after all.” Courtney shoved a hand through the air, dismissing the gown and her family along with it.
“You might as well take the dress with you. I don’t want it.”
Ryan beamed with delight and dug around for something to store it in. “Actually, the gown looks about your size. You should try it on for fun.”
“For fun?” Courtney stepped away from the gown firmly. “You have a twisted idea of ‘fun’, Ryan. Knock yourself out with it. I’m getting back to work.”
Ryan stood and turned halfway back. He looked as if he planned to say something more, but the gown slipped from the boxes toward the dusty floor and froze the words in his throat.
Acting purely on instinct, Courtney caught the dress in her arms. Without warning, the attic faded and an image of herself wearing the gown replaced it. She’d worn her hair short and spiky since her eighteenth birthday, but this version of herself had long hair with thick dark ringlets dancing on her bare shoulders. The room darkened, and she could have sworn that candlelight flickered on the walls. The soft strains of a waltz filled the air along with the stench of cigar smoke and wind.
She gasped, trying to fill her lungs and shake off the trance. Someone moved on the edge of her vision and she turned eagerly, hoping that seeing Ryan would help.
A man she didn’t recognize stepped out of the shadows and took her hand in his. She couldn’t see his face clearly, but he looked at her with eyes as clear blue as a summer sky, grinned broadly, and evaporated into the shadows again.
The instant he disappeared, air rushed back into Courtney’s lungs. She felt the gown slip from her arms and the rest of the vision faded. She was back in the attic with Ryan. . . and he was staring at her as if she’d suddenly grown a third arm.
Laughing uneasily, Courtney backed away from the dress. “Is it hot in here, or is it just me?”
“It’s warm,” Ryan said uncertainly. “Are you okay?”
“I’m not sure. Did you see anything odd?”
“Just the look on your face. What happened?”
She shook her head and rubbed her temples with her fingertips. “I’m not sure,” she said again. “It was the weirdest thing.” She glanced at the gown and realized how foolish she’d sound if she admitted the delusion aloud. Anyway, she was probably just overheated and hungry. “I saw my life flash in front of my eyes,” she said with a tight laugh. “I think that means we need to eat before we do anything else.”
Ryan gathered the yards of material and began folding the dress carefully. “I thought you’d never be ready for a break. What sounds good to you?”
Courtney headed for the door. “Steak and potatoes. A hot roast beef sandwich and fries.” She started down the stairs and called back over her shoulder, “Anything as long as it’s substantial.”
“You know what I think you should do?” Ryan asked as he trudged down the stairs behind her. “You should wear this gown to the Victorian Ball this weekend.”
“I don’t think so. Pink is not my signature color.” She stopped on the third floor landing where the air was a whole lot cooler and substantially fresher. “Besides, I’m not going to the ball this year.”
Ryan stopped just behind her. “You’re kidding, right?”
“Actually, I’m not.”
“But the Victorian Ball is a tradition, and you’re here for the first time in forever. You have to go.”
“I don’t have to do anything,” she said sharply, then tempered her voice with a smile. “I went when I lived here because Grandmother made me, not because I enjoyed it. One of the best parts of moving away was that I didn’t have to dress up in some frou-frou dress and play ‘let’s pretend’ all night.”
“It’s once a year, not every week.”
“That’s still once a year too often.”
Ryan’s smile faded and disappointment clouded his eyes. He wore Courtney’s least favorite expression—hurt and betrayal mixed with a dash of self-righteous indignation. “You’re too good for us, is that it?”
Courtney growled in frustration. “That’s not what I said. The ball’s just not my cup of tea. You know that.”
Still holding the bundle of silk, Ryan pushed past her and headed down the stairs to the second floor landing.
She had to grab the railing and take the stairs two at a time to keep up with him. “Come on, Ryan. Don’t act like that.”
“Like I just broke your favorite toy.”
He didn’t break stride as he headed toward the main floor. “Why would I be upset just because you suddenly want to change a tradition we’ve followed our entire lives?”
“One we’ve followed under protest.”
“I happen to enjoy the ball. I thought you did, too.”
“I hated going,” Courtney said again. “The only reason I did was to keep Grandmother happy.”
Ryan strode into the foyer and laid the gown over one of Elizabeth’s wing-back chairs. “So go to make me happy this year. Who knows when we’ll get another chance to go together?”
Courtney sagged onto the bottom step and hugged her knees, scowling petulantly even though she knew her reaction was a bit childish. Ryan had taken vacation time from work to help her. She really couldn’t say no.
“You’re right,” she said, forcing a smile. “And I’m sorry. If it’ll make you happy, I’ll go to the ball.”
Ryan’s petulant look matched her own. “Don’t do it just to placate me.”
Courtney gripped the bannisters and pulled herself to her feet again. “But I am doing it to placate you, silly. And that’s exactly what you want me to do. I’m also agreeing because I’m starving to death. I’m afraid that if I don’t agree, I’ll waste away to nothing before we get out the front door.”
Ryan grinned victoriously. “Does that mean you’ll wear the dress?”
She rolled her eyes in exasperation. “Just say we can eat lunch sometime today and I’ll wear anything you want me to.” She checked her pockets for money and keys and waved him toward the door. “Can we go now, please?”
Still grinning, Ryan slipped out the door. Courtney followed, reaching behind her at the last minute to turn out the light. Something brushed her fingers as she pushed the switch, and in that instant before the light died and shadows filled the foyer, she could have sworn she saw the man from the attic bending over her hand. Adding to the delusion, a breeze from somewhere felt almost like the soft caress of lips on her fingers.
She jerked her hand away and slammed the door on the shadowy figure. But she couldn’t shake the uneasy feeling that followed her as she hurried toward her Accord in the driveway. Maybe her grandmother’s death had affected her more than she’d thought. Or maybe the dust had gotten to her brain. Or maybe she’d been right all along. There was a Pandora’s Box in the attic. . . and Ryan had opened it.
On Saturday night, Courtney stood at the back of the over-crowded city gym, holding a glass of punch in one hand and the skirt of her pink gown in the other. Red, white and blue banners draped between gigantic pine and flower wreaths on the walls, one of which kept catching the phony ringlets Ryan’s sister Dee had pinned to the back of Courtney’s hair that afternoon. She looked ridiculous and she felt terribly self-conscious, but tonight wasn’t about her. Tonight was for Ryan.
She sipped from the cup she held, made a face at the sweet punch, and set the cup aside. Her head throbbed, her back ached, and the corset she’d been forced to wear so the dress would fit had her afraid of throwing up if she moved too fast. On the dance floor, men and women whirled and swayed to the Virginia reel, and the sound of countless feet sliding and thudding on the floor kicked the ache in her head up another notch.
She’d been fighting a headache ever since that first day in the attic. She didn’t know if she might be fighting her first migraine, or just feeling the results of stress, but nothing seemed to make it feel better. Maybe she should take advantage of this quiet moment to slip outside before Ryan finished dancing with his sister and came looking to Courtney for another waltz.
She maneuvered through the crowd and ducked outside, dragging twenty yards of silk through doors that had been propped open with cinder blocks. After the heavy press of people inside, the cool summer night felt like heaven on her skin. She stepped into the shadows and wrapped her arms around herself, turning slowly and taking in the town and the sage-stubbled sweep of surrounding hillsides glowing beneath the moon and stars.
She’d grown up in this town—as close as she’d come to growing up anywhere—and she would probably always feel some kind of attachment to it. But she’d never truly belonged here and she probably wouldn’t come back now that Elizabeth was gone. Ryan was the only thing she’d miss about this place.
She walked slowly down the gentle slope of a hill, grimacing when a pebble poked through the thin-soled pink dancing slippers she’d found in the attic, and wondering what the first Grand Ball—held smack in the middle of the gold rush and the Civil War—had been like. The citizens of Virginia City did their best to copy that night every year, but she was sure that a population of sixty, plus tourists, couldn’t even come close to recreating the energy and noise of ten thousand miners, thieves, and prostitutes.
Smiling ruefully, she rounded a corner and the music faded even further, eventually giving way to gentle cricket songs and the sounds of gunfire from some cop or cowboy show on a nearby TV. She thought her grandmother and wished, as she often did, that things could have been different between them. If it had only been earlier in the day, she might have walked to her favorite spot along Alder Creek to think. But in this gown and slippers, she’d never make it.
As she turned back toward the gym, she caught the beam of a strange light coming from an old storage shed in the empty field behind the gym. Curious, she took a few steps toward it. As she watched, the light spread from the floor to the ceiling, and within seconds the entire door glowed in an almost fluorescent purple light in the darkened sky.
Filled with questions, she started across the uneven ground toward the shed, she realized that the light was pulsing. Brighter, darker, brighter, darker, it seemed to change with every step she took. But that was silly. It must seem that way because she was moving.
Unless it wasn’t light at all, but fire.
That possibility got her moving faster. A person couldn’t spend even part of a lifetime in a town where the past is so carefully and painstakingly preserved, and not take the threat of fire seriously. One careless blaze could wipe out years of history and spell disaster for the whole city.
It only took a few seconds to reach the shed. She touched the door cautiously, just the way she’d been taught in school, to check for heat. The plank door was cool to the touch, which meant if there was a fire inside, it wasn’t raging out of control. It might even be something she could put out with a fire extinguisher.
She checked the knob next, found it cool as well, and jerked open the door, shielding her face with one arm just in case. But there was no fire inside, only a brilliant white light that pulsed like a special effect from a movie and a gentle force that exerted a tug, as if someone or something was trying to pull her inside.
She resisted, of course. She wasn’t about to walk into the shed like a bad actress in a cheap horror movie. But the more she resisted, the more forceful the pressure became. One minute it felt as if someone was pulling her toward the light; the next, as if someone was pushing from behind. She glanced over her shoulder, hoping to find that Ryan had come looking for her, but the narrow strip of field was empty and she couldn’t see anyone on the street, either.
The light seemed to be coming from every direction now. Above her. Behind. Even shining up from beneath her feet. She was surrounded by its rays, caressed by a warm breeze. She tried backing up, but the force behind her grew even stronger. She stepped forward, trying to break its hold, but she couldn’t feel the floor beneath her feet.
Everything seemed to have disappeared—everything, that is, but the light. She shielded her eyes, but she still couldn’t see. She called out for help, but the most complete silence she’d ever heard swallowed the sound. The only thing she heard was the door slamming shut behind her.
Courtney would have been lying if she’d said that she wasn’t nervous. No, nervous wasn’t nearly strong enough. She was terrified. With the door closed, the pressure ceased and the blinding light faded, but the sudden eerie darkness was absolute and ominous.
She whipped around and groped for the doorknob, but she couldn’t find it. She couldn’t feelanything on the door. No hinges. No knob. Only splinters as her fingers ran along the weathered wood.
This was not funny.
She tried to keep her sudden panic under control as she pounded on the door and shouted for help, but the strange silence swallowed every sound she made even before she could hear it. Images danced in front of her eyes, forming and fading in rhythm with her pulse.
The man from the attic swirled in front of her, followed by an image of herself in the gown, people she’d never seen before, and people who looked vaguely familiar. Her heart hammered and the only sound she could hear was a deep electrical pulse that kept time with her heartbeat.
She could feel the walls closing in on her, the floor rising up toward her, but she tried desperately not to panic. “Open the door,” she cried out. “Please? If anyone is out there, could you please help me? I’m stuck and I’m getting claustrophobic.”
Silence was her only answer.
She pounded on the door with the flat of her palm, then her fist. The sensation of being suffocated was so intense, she threw herself into the door, kicking with all her might and screaming as loud as she could. But nothing happened and no one answered.
Unbelievable as it seemed, she was stuck inside until someone came along to rescue her.