Read Chapter One of SWEET HOME MONTANA by Lisa Mondello

Read Chapter One of SWEET HOME MONTANA, book 2 of the SWEET MONTANA series by Lisa Mondello
Dumped by a cheating husband, Katie Dobbs' life had gone off the rails and she is now back to square one, living in her parents' home in Sweet, Montana and working a job she hates. She refuses to stay in a dark and empty house as a constant reminder of her mistakes. So she did the only thing that made sense. She breaks into an old dilapidated chapel to figure out her next move, and is nearly arrested by Caleb Samuel, her brother's high school friend who is now a handsome police officer in town.

Caleb had heard Katie was having a hard time. Sweet was a small town and everyone knew everyone else's business. Except for one thing. No one knew where his sister Julie disappeared to 10 years ago and no one had heard from her since. Katie had been good friends with Julie before they'd both left Sweet. Now Katie is back. Buying a broken down chapel to renovate as a house is nuts when you don't know the difference between each end of a hammer. And Katie didn't. But she did know Julie, and maybe she'd be able to give him some insight into where Julie had gone. Caleb offers to help Katie renovate. But one problem after another threatens the project, and leaves Katie thinking she'll never realize her dreams. Until she realizes she's falling in love with her brother's friend. Even as everything seems to be falling apart around them, can love help heal their hearts?

Chapter ONE

Not many people could say they took a giant leap of faith and ended up landing in the same spot they started. Or sitting in her car, as was the case for Katie Dobbs. It took a special kind of talent to marry the wrong guy, and end up back at square one.
Katie apparently excelled at it.
It all seemed so familiar. She was sitting in her car on a cold winter night, headlights illuminating the long driveway leading to her parents’ house. Decisions were made that night. The leap. And now she was sitting in the same spot in the driveway on a snowy night nearly ten years later. Only this time, instead of rushing into the house to pack her things and tell her parents she was leaving, no one was home.
Katie stared at the dark front door that was so familiar and once held comfort. She knew the exact spot to push on it when it was stuck in the summer when the heat made the wood swell just enough to make it stick. She knew she had to warm the key between her fingers in the winter to make sure the key fit in the lock during the cold weather.
She grabbed the button on her seat belt to unfasten it, but then stopped. She’d forgotten to turn on the front porch light again so she couldn’t come home to a dark house. She’d never remembered to do that when she was in high school. She didn’t have to. Her parents remembered for her. And when her brother, Kasper, had been staying at the house while he was home over Christmas, he’d done it. But Kas wasn’t coming for a visit for a few weeks.
So it had been up to her. And she’d forgotten. Now the dark house mirrored what she felt like about her life…pathetic.
She undid her seatbelt with the keys still in the ignition and heard the beep to remind her to stay buckled. Placing her hand on the steering wheel, she contemplated going inside, making dinner, and then going to bed at the hour she’d done when she was ten years old.
Yep, pathetic.
She blew out a quick breath. Wasn’t there some kind of app she could get for her phone that would take care of things like turning on lights in the house, magically cooking dinner so she wouldn’t have to do it? Okay, so maybe not the dinner. But surely, Rachel, her coworker at the bank, knew of some app that would take care of lights. Katie would have to ask her about it tomorrow when she went back to work.
Rachel was ten years younger than Katie was. She was in touch with all the new tech stuff everyone was using these days. Katie was older, but not sure she was wiser.
She pushed the car door open and felt the rush of cold air envelope the space around her. Winter in Montana dragged on through late spring some years. This year it seemed a bit longer. Although it was only March, they could easily get a bad dump of snow as late as May. The thought of it was depressing.
“I don’t want to cook,” she mumbled to herself as she started to step outside the car. Then she stopped herself and thought about where she wanted to be. It was odd. But no stranger than half the things she’d done in her life.
She got back into the seat fully and slammed the car door closed. She knew where she was going.
* * *
There was a time when Katie was younger and she had dreamed of having a life outside of Sweet, Montana. It wasn’t unusual. Most kids who came into the bank to cash their after school paychecks had similar dreams. Not much had changed over the years. The boys she’d known in high school seemed too simple when she’d been younger. Like all teenage girls, Katie had wanted a life that was exciting, full of adventure, and full of travel. It was supposed to be waiting for her just outside of Montana.
She’d found none of it. Instead, she’d fallen into the same trap so many of the girls in her graduating class had. She’d met someone from the next town who’d swept her away with big dreams of his own. Dreams they’d achieve together. Mr. Right was her ticket to excitement.
But somehow, Katie still ended up back in Sweet with not much more than she had when she’d left. And the Prince Charming she’d married turned out to be a frog who’d drained her bank account on his way out the door when he’d left her.
She drove down the long and winding road that led out of town, slowing down when she reached a big field so she could see the building she was looking for. It was dark, but she knew it sat just on the edge of the big pasture where at one time horses grazed before the property had been abandoned. She carefully pulled into the unplowed parking lot, but only enough so her car wouldn’t be stuck in the snow.
What was she doing here?
Katie got out of the car and walked carefully through the parking lot of the old church. It was tiny by church standards these days. She wasn’t sure if more than a few dozen people could fit inside. But she’d driven by this abandoned and dilapidated church so many times since she’d returned to Sweet that her mind wandered to what it could be.
The thin heel of her boot got stuck momentarily in a crevice beneath the snow in the decrepit asphalt that was neglected with age and crumbling in to many places to be repaired. It was just as well. Someone would eventually come into town, if they hadn’t already, and scoop up all this property for a song. They’d rip up all the crumbling pieces and reuse it for something else, leaving nothing but the rich soil beneath to be made into a beautiful pasture that would be lush and green during the summer.
It had been years since Katie had traipsed through the old chapel. The idea of some outsider snatching it up and tearing this old chapel down to build condominiums made her sick. But it would happen. That’s what progress did to small towns. Things changed.
Ten years ago the chapel roof was still intact. From the small light of the moon, Katie could see the roof had decayed and was probably leaking into the chapel, damaging the beautiful hardwood floors and the rich wood of the pews.
As she reached the side door, her foot kicked a can and made a caustic noise that echoed loudly through the night. The nearest neighbor was too far away. She shivered from cold, but also from the sudden fear that someone else might be here. She knew kids would come down to the chapel and party inside. She had done it a few times herself when she’d been a teenager. There was no reason to think that the Saturday night ritual many of her classmates partook in would end. She could only imagine the garbage and the damage done to the inside that had happened over the years since she’d been here last.
As a teenage girl, she hadn’t given it another thought. The woman she was now felt sad for not seeing the potential the chapel had in being restored and beautified to something quaint and homey.
She sighed as she reached the side door. The actual door was long gone, ripped off most likely by kids who’d tried to get inside after the chapel had been abandoned. Unlike when she was in high school, the empty doorway had been boarded up, most likely by one of the local cops trying to keep teenagers out. But it didn’t work. Someone had been here, breached the barrier, and gotten in. All she had to do was tug a bit and the board moved enough so she could slip inside.
Moonlight filtered in from the hole in the ceiling and one of the stained glass windows that wasn’t boarded up, giving her just enough light to see the inside. She pulled her cell phone out of her jacket pocket and pressed the app for the flashlight. It wasn’t much, but it still gave her enough light to see where she was stepping.
Why was she here? She knew why. It had all began here. Bruce had talked her into leaving with him when he’d left for school. It had started here and had continued until they’d sat in the driveway of her parents’ home and he’d won her over.
“Ack,” she said into the cold air. “When did you become such a pushover, Katie?”
She laughed humorlessly as she sat in one of the pews in the back of the chapel and thought about how her life had gone off the rails. She rubbed her fingers together as she laid them on her lap and tried to ward off the bitter Montana cold. Somehow being in the dark was easier, but the bitter cold went straight to her bones.
A gust of wind swept into the building, making another chill race through her body. She didn’t bother to look up in the dark. It was probably just the flimsy plywood door she’d pulled away from the wall catching the gust of wind.
But then a beam of light swept through the chapel, illuminating features she couldn’t see in the dark until the beam of light landed on her. She quickly turned and saw the stark light source but did not see the person holding the flashlight as they moved through the open door and into the chapel.
“Katie Dobbs. What on earth are you doing in here?”
Katie shielded her eyes with her fingers as sudden nerves raced through her, replacing the cold she’d just felt. ”Do I know you?”
The man’s low chuckle sounded familiar, but she still couldn’t place it.
“I hope so. I’ve known you and your brother practically my entire life.”
The man dropped the flashlight just enough so that it wasn’t shining in her eyes directly. She squinted and took in the man’s silhouette and…the police uniform.
“Caleb? Caleb, is that you?”
“I half expected to find some kids drinking beer in here. You were the last person I expected to find sitting there.” 
Caleb came into the chapel fully and made his way over to the pew where Katie was sitting. He looked around for a second, sweeping the flashlight into little corners to make sure that they were alone. Katie hadn’t even thought that someone else might be here. A homeless person maybe. But in Sweet, no one ever stayed homeless for long. With this frigid weather, someone would’ve to take a vagrant in for the night or take them to one of the bigger city shelters with the opportunity to help them get on their feet.
Seemingly satisfied, Caleb sat down next to her on the pew. As he did, Katie felt the pew rock, indicating the fasteners that braced the pew to the floor had come loose. It was no wonder. How long had this place sat in decay?
Although the flashlight provided much more light than she’d had from the moon, Katie wasn’t sure if she was relieved that she was no longer alone, or annoyed that Caleb had broken the relative quiet she had enjoyed for the first time in months.
No, that wasn’t exactly true. Katie had plenty of quiet at her family’s home. But now that her parents were snowbirds, and her brother was living in New York, she loathed going home. She knew that all the life inside of it was gone.
No, it wasn’t being alone that Katie wanted to escape from. It was fleeting thoughts that nagged at her, telling her she’d messed up by marrying a cheating man who was now giving a life Katie had dreamed of to another woman.
She chuckled softly, and looked down at her hands in shame wishing Caleb would turn off the flashlight so she could hide.
“What’s so funny?” Caleb asked.
She shrugged and quickly glanced at Caleb’s expression. He wasn’t laughing at her or judging her. She wasn’t quite sure exactly how to read Caleb. He was right that she’d known him practically their entire lives. He’d been Kasper’s friend growing up. One of the guys who’d played hockey down at the lake or gone to rodeos to see if they had the stuff of bull riders and bronc riders.
But even with their history, or maybe because of it, Katie suddenly found herself embarrassed to admit the reason she’d come to the chapel. And even more embarrassed she’d been caught wallowing.
“As long as I can remember, this place has been falling apart,” she said. “Do you ever remember a time when people used to actually come here to go to church?”
“My parents were married in this chapel,” Caleb said with a smile.
He nodded and looked around. “I have some pictures back at the house. My sister and I used to come here on Sundays when we were very little. But I don’t remember much about it other than from looking at pictures. Strange, huh?”
She shook her head, glad that he’d veered off the subject of why she was here.
“The one thing I remember was sitting and seeing the spectrum of light come through the stained glass window and shining on us as we sat in the pew. Nothing else. Just that.”
“I’d love to see that. I’ll bet it’s beautiful.”
“It was. But the chapel was too small. Sweet was growing too fast. So when the new church was built, everyone went there. After that, this one was forgotten.”
Sadness filled her. Is that what really happens? Things mean something and then they’re forgotten. And what of people? Were they so easily replaced as well?
“It wasn’t exactly forgotten,” Katie said. “Kids have been coming here on Saturday nights for a very long time. Probably still do by the look of all those beer cans over by the door. Or what there is of a door.”
Caleb chuckled and then pulled off his hat, placing it next to him in the pew. When he turned to her, she caught his amused grin with the little bit of direct light illuminating his face from the flashlight.
“True enough. I spent a few…maybe even more than a few Saturday nights here back in high school.”
Katie laughed at the amused look on his face as he remembered the past. It felt good to laugh at something other than her own missteps in life. Yeah, she had laughed at them, too. She laughed at how easy it had been to marry the wrong man, and to think her life would be different.
Caleb grinned at her. “Don’t give me that look, Katie Dobbs. I know I saw you here too on a few occasions.”
“I wasn’t going to say anything!”
His expression changed to one of concern. “What you really doing here, Katie?”
She sighed as embarrassment flooded her again. “Feeling sorry for myself. How pathetic is that?”
“We all have our moments.”
“Mine are becoming a bad habit.”
She threw her head back and looked up at the ceiling. She couldn’t see the great cathedral ceiling or the beams that supported the building, or the teardrop light fixtures that she’d seen light up in a picture one Christmas when they’d had midnight services. It was too dark to make out anything in detail or to see what was even still there, or what had been broken or taken away by vandals.
What Katie knew for sure was there was a hole in the roof, but only because she’d stepped into a pile of snow and nearly slipped when she’d walked into the chapel. It was a pity to think of the damage bad weather had caused inside. The damage to wood beams and wide planks that were probably well over a hundred years old was heartbreaking.
“Hey, can you shine the light on the ceiling?” she finally asked.
With the lighted flashlight still in his hand, Caleb asked, “What on earth for?”
“If you’re not going to arrest me, then humor me.”
He chuckled low. “Don’t tempt me, Katie. The jury is still out on that one.”
Caleb lifted the flashlight and sent beams of light soaring up towards the cathedral ceiling, until he settled the flashlight on the big hole in the roof, a scar that was a sign of loneliness and neglect by those who had once cherished the small chapel.
“That’s not good,” he said.
“You think?” she asked, chuckling. “I wonder how much it would cost to fix that.”
“Why would you want to? This whole building probably has all kinds of rot and decay. Some from the weather and some from a band of kids like we were only interested in coming out here to party.”
“I used to think this would be a great house for someone to live in.”
Caleb chuckled as if she were crazy. And maybe she was. In the shape the chapel was in, it would take a lot of money and hard work to bring it back to something that was inhabitable. Just seeing the few things dangling and broken as they sat there made Katie second-guess her decision to come here alone.
“Stop laughing at me,” she said, suddenly self-conscious.
“I’m not.”
She jabbed him with her elbow.
“Okay, I guess I am. But look at this place,” he said sweeping the flashlight beam around the room slowly. “Can you actually imagine living here? I mean really living here?”
“Yeah. Of course, not in the shape it’s in. I’m not stupid. And I’m not a carpenter, which is my biggest problem.”
“Oh, you think that’s the biggest problem here?”
She chuckled at his sarcasm. “I do have a vision though. I hate to see something so beautiful like this chapel continue to deteriorate beyond repair. Someday someone will buy this place. They’ll purchase it for the land so they can put up some other monstrosity of a house. Or worse. The buyer will probably litter the field with condos that will end up being a scar on the landscape.”
“Ouch. I have a condo.”
“You do? Really? I thought you rented that house near the police station. Isn’t that the street you grew up on?”
“Yeah. It’s close to town and convenient to the police station. It makes it easy to get to the station when I’m called in during a storm. But I do own a condo not too far from here up in on one of the mountain skiing areas. It was an investment.”
“You disapprove.”
“You sound just like my brother. You think in terms of investment not vision.”
“Right now I’m envisioning us getting out of here. Aren’t you cold, Katie?”
“Yes. But don’t change the subject.”
“We have a subject other than you trespassing?”
“I’m focused on the chapel,” she insisted.
“I thought we were talking about Kas and him not being a visionary,” Caleb said.
She glared at him, but wasn’t sure if he could actually see it. “Okay, fine. Don’t get me wrong. I think my brother has done an amazing job of building a very successful company. But I thank God that he has someone in his life now and is going to bring him down from whatever investment cloud he’s been living in for the past ten years.”
“That’s right. I heard he got engaged.”
“No, not yet. Close though.”
“Is that like horseshoes or…”
Katie chuckled and jabbed him with her elbow. “Knock it off. You’re making fun of me again.”
Slight pangs of jealousy hit her square in the chest. She hated the feeling, especially when it came to her brother. Katie was happy for him. She truly was. And she liked Tabby a lot. In some ways her brother and Tabby were so different. And in some ways she couldn’t imagine a better match.
And it sometimes irritated her to think about what Kas had found in Tabby. Her own marriage had fallen to pieces because Katie and Bruce hadn’t had that type of a match. Looking back on it now, she wasn’t sure what she was even thinking when she’d agreed to marry him. It had been mistake. But no one could have convinced her of that back then.
Katie felt Caleb nudge her.
“Where did you go?” he asked.
“You drifted off somewhere.”
“I did?”
“We were talking about your brother and Tabby.”
“Yeah, that’s right. Tabby is nice. She’s going to find New York City a little challenging after living most of her life in Montana.”
“That’s for sure,” Caleb said with a shrug. “The only mountains out there are buildings.”
“What, you bought a condo that you don’t even live in?”
Caleb placed his finger against his chin, and then said, “You mean, why I bought it or why I don’t live there?”
“You mean you have a different answer for each?”
“You said you bought it for an investment. Does that mean you rent it out?”
“Sometimes. It’s rented on a weekly basis when people from out of town come to vacation.”
“So someone pays you rent for the place you own and you rent out a house from someone else.”
“I told you. The house is close to the station.”
“But why don’t you just live in the place in the mountains.”
“It’s too pretty.”
She chuckled and it seemed to echo off the walls and the ceiling inside the chapel. “Too pretty? What does that even mean?”
“Not the area. Although it’s beautiful country up in the mountain. It’s not me.”
She nodded as if she understood, although she wasn’t quite sure she did. The perfect match was a hard thing to be sure of.
Caleb leaned back against the back of the pew, making it rock again. “I’m a guy. You walk into a pretty space and it feels like you can’t put your feet up on the coffee table or drop your jacket over a chair. I remember my sister getting upset when I’d come home from school and do that. She was convinced my mother would get home from work and have an aneurism, which she quite possibly could have done given the fact she liked things super tidy.”
“You’re not a tidy guy?”
His smile was slow coming and then it grew until he chuckled. “I’m a guy. I try. That’s pretty much all I can say.”
“At least you’re honest.” Katie thought back to those earlier days before she’d left Sweet. “I remember your sister well.”
He drew in a deep breath before speaking. “I hoped you would. I hope somebody does. Someone besides me.”
“How long is it been since you heard from her?”
Caleb looked down. “Too long.” He cleared his throat and pulled himself up to a stand. “You really shouldn’t be in here, Katie Dobbs. It’s dangerous. We’ve been discouraging kids from coming here for a long time because we’re not sure the structure is stable.”
At the formal use of her full name, she replied, “I suppose so, Officer Samuel.”
Caleb chuckled when she mimicked him. “Don’t start with me, Katie. I know your secrets.”
“Yeah? What are you going to do about it?”
“Nothing. I have more secrets than you, and you pretty much know all of them, too.”
“You shouldn’t have hung out with my brother and bragged.”
Feeling a little better, she stood up. She liked talking with Caleb. That lonely feeling that had enveloped her earlier had disappeared and been replaced with curiosity.
Sweet was a small town. There were wide borders but most people knew what was going on. At least they knew when someone was hurting. Katie had been so self-absorbed in her own misfortune that she’d forgotten that Caleb had a good dose of his own. Still, he managed to serve in the military and then become a police officer in Sweet. He rose above his heartache.
Guilt ate at Katie until she felt the cold seep into her bones again. “It’s cold.”
“It’s Montana. What do you expect? Let’s get out of here. You’ll be warm soon enough in your car.”
She followed behind him slowly and carefully. “I still think this chapel could be wonderful. Something beautiful out of something broken.”
Caleb stopped walking and turned to look at her. He stayed silent for a lingering moment. With the beam of light shining down, she could barely see his smile. But it was there. This time, he wasn’t making fun of her.
“I think you better see it in the daylight before you make that assumption,” he said.
“Maybe I will.”
He sputtered, “Did you just tell a police officer that you planned on breaking and entering? Again?”
She shrugged. “If you do it with me, it’ll just be me checking out the place with a police escort.”
His jaw shifted to the side as if he were weighing what she’d said. “Is that so? Now I know why you never got in as much trouble as I did when we were kids,” he said. “You’re smooth.”
Her smile was wide as she followed him outside. “You have no idea.”
# # #
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