Cassie’s words dangled in the air like an invitation, warm and welcome. He couldn’t likely bring her home without a simple kiss, now, could he? When their eyes met, Shane tilted his head, asking for permission with the lift of his brow. She nodded slightly – a silent response – yet the best thing he’d heard in weeks – Yes.
Vince watched the women pull up in three cars and file into the hotel. He rubbed his forearm across his sweaty head and paused in his movements after maneuvering the front loader to set the boulder where it belonged on the landscape.
They were some incredible women, an interesting mix of hair colors and clothing styles from business formal on Lana and Cami to more casual chic attire on Rosemary and Delphi. Sage wore a billowy, eccentric skirt, and Jonquil’s sleek pantsuit seemed somehow tomboyish, even while it reeked of professionalism. A tall, muscular, bald guy pulled in right behind them, following them into the building.
Vince had managed to meet all of the women the previous day, intentionally putting off work in their yard until the day they were to arrive, if only to catch a glimpse of them. Or rather, because he was highly curious about one woman in particular.
George had mentioned all of his daughters at one time or another, but spoke particularly of Camellia. Vince had gone out of his way to track down pictures of her on the Internet when George had made it clear he felt Vince would be a nice match for her. Vince wasn’t one to let others guide him when it came to women, but he’d been curious.
And then he’d seen her picture and thought if she was half as nice on the inside as the outside, he might be willing to get to know her after all. Yesterday he’d learned she was far better looking in person than in the grainy newsprint pictures. And those long legs—they could make a grown man weep in appreciation.
Now she flicked the sunglasses off her face, shook out the mop of red curls, and put on an expression of determination before stepping into the building. She had seemed so confident the previous day, he was surprised to see the signs of nerves.
Turning his mind back to his work, Vince backed up the front loader to get the next boulder.
There must have been nerves all around, because after the women’s various morning routines, they settled down to breakfasts of eggs, cold cereal, or in Rosemary’s case, three cups of espresso, black. They car pooled to the hotel, which was only a couple of blocks away, a nice convenience on mornings when a walk would be a welcome change. Checking out the blue skies as she got out of the car, Cami thought she might indulge in the activity often. Juniper Ridge might be the back of beyond, but it was lovely.
Half a dozen men worked in the yard, putting in landscaping. Dozens of construction vehicles created a maze the ladies had to pick their way through to reach the front door. When the women walked from the finished exterior to the inside, the sound of hammers and drills was apparent, though the entrance was mostly finished, if lacking furniture.
Alex greeted them as they crossed into the building. “Hey, ladies, I’m glad to see you all came together. Welcome to DiCarlo Resort and Spa of Juniper Ridge, Colorado. As you’ll notice, there’s still a great deal of work to be done before you open September first. We’ll do a full tour with the regional director after the meeting. Over the next few days, each of you will have a chance to discuss your departments and goals.”
“Me first, right? I have to get back to Boston for a wedding in two days,” Delphi reminded him. “This meeting is causing me a major headache.”
“Yes, you first. How are things coming with that, anyway?” He turned and walked beside her as he led them to the meeting.
“Good, great. If this bride hadn’t called me at three a.m. in tears and terror that something was going to go wrong, it would be better.”
Alex stopped at an open door and gestured for the women to go on through. “Every job has its perks.” His smile was wry.
“Don’t they just,” Lana said as she breezed into the room ahead of Cami, then stopped two steps in, causing Cami to run into her, and nearly knock her down. “What are you doing here?”
Cami righted herself and took a step back to find Lana staring at Blake Bahlmann, formerly hotel manager at the Chicago resort. Only a couple of seconds passed before she regained her self-possession and continued into the room.
Jace trudged to the top of the hill and dug the board into the snow. “Your turn, Mom. Don’t biff it.” He opened his hands for his sister. “C’mere, Lils. Mommy’s going to fall off the snowboard.”
Natasha handed him Lily. “After weeks of painful crashes, I am now the expert snowboarder.” She rubbed at the latest bruise on her backside.
Jace laughed. Setting Lily on her feet, he steadied her with both hands under her armpits. “One good slide don’t prove nothin’.” Jace sat on the snow and tugged Lily down next to him. He leaned toward his sister’s ear and said in a stage whisper, “Help me make snowballs. We’ll throw them at Mommy when she crashes.”
Lily giggled as if she understood and followed her brother’s example. Together, they dug into the crusty snow to assemble their arsenal.
“If I crash.” Natasha pried open the plastic bindings of the cheap snowboard Jace had received from Santa last month and slid her flowered Bogs into position. The descent shouldn’t even be classified as a hill, but she still managed to gain new sore spots on most runs. She leaned forward. The tip plunged off the edge and she flew toward the bottom. Her stomach hopped. Cool air brushed her cheeks. This is great. When I don’t crash.
Without warning, the glossy surface gained the advantage. The board slid out from under her feet. Natasha’s rear banged onto the ice and scooted to a stop. “Oomph,” she grunted, pain radiating up through her back. A new bruise would appear tomorrow. She watched the snowboard finish its journey across the yard, minus its rider.
“You suck,” Jace yelled.
“Watch it. I raised you with a better vocabulary than that.”
He laughed. “Your awful crashes are amazing.”
It wasn’t poetic, but he was only nine. “If you weren’t making fun of me, I’d be impressed.” Natasha laid back in the snow, resting her eyes and smiling to herself. She did suck, but she didn’t care—this was quality time they didn’t often get. She relaxed, enjoying the contrast of warm sweat rolling down her back and the cold seeping through her sweatshirt.
Jace’s laughter stopped suddenly. An unnatural quiet descended upon the yard. Natasha forced her eyelids open, squinting against the brilliance of the sun.
Natasha sat up. The world swam for a second. Jace and Lily were still perched on the hill above her. Lily happily patted the snow, but Jace’s face was pinched. He pointed toward the barren lilacs extending from the north end of the house to the neighbor’s fence. Natasha focused on the source of his distress. A tall figure studied them through the bushes.
Who is that? Natasha scrambled to her feet. Her heartbeat escalated.
The man strode toward her, stopping less than ten feet away. He glared down, towering over her 5’4”. Dark bristles covered the lower half of his face. His pale features were model perfect, long lashes showcasing black licorice eyes. His face gave no hint as to why he’d invaded their privacy.
Tearing her eyes from him, Natasha glanced at her children. Jace didn’t speak or move. Lily screamed her version of hello. The man didn’t answer. Natasha pivoted back to face him, unsure why she felt such a strong urge to scream for help and run to protect her children.
His gaze locked on hers. His eyes were so cold. A chill wind swept over her, but the branches on the trees didn’t move.
“Can I help you?” She clutched her gloved fingers to stop the trembling.
His eyes darkened. His lips stayed in a tight line.
“Did you, um, get lost?” Natasha forced an unsteady laugh and arched her eyebrows. “Easy to do in a town of less than three thousand people.” He didn’t crack a smile so she released her own, pointed toward the front yard, and stiffly recited driving directions. “Highway 89 is less than a mile east of here. The fastest route is to drive straight out of the neighborhood and then take two-hundred s-s…”
His right arm rose—a black pistol molded to his palm. Heart thudding, Natasha’s voice sputtered and died.
Cole’s shopping trip with Maggie
We browsed several stores in the mall, each more trendy than the next. “I don’t know, Mags, maybe I’m being too hasty.” I held up a pair of beat-up jeans covered in holes. “Maybe I should stick to scrubs.”
“Relax. This is all new to you. You’re stepping out of your comfort zone,” she insisted, holding up a t-shirt with some crazy graphic across the front. I cringed.
“Okay, let’s go.” She grabbed my arm and led me to a store boasting the world’s largest collection of Levis.
“This is more like it.” I skimmed through a pile of good old Levis.
“What about these?” Maggie handed me a pair of dark skinny jeans.
“No.” I said flatly. Skinny jeans? Seriously. Does she have any idea what tight jeans do to a guy’s manhood? I wanted to quote her the statistics of the adverse effect tight pants can have on a man, but I bit my tongue. No more statistics. I took the jeans. She had it right. I needed to step out of my comfort zone. I grabbed two other pair of normal jeans and went into the dressing room.
Wedging myself into the skinny jeans was a joke. My voice practically jumped two octaves they were so tight. I eyed myself in the mirror and cringed. I looked like a wannabe rock star. I stepped out to show Maggie.
“They look good,” she said with a smile. I shook my head and tugged on the legs of the stupid things. I’d walked ten feet and they were already crawling up my butt.
“Cole, they’re not that tight. You’ll get used to them,” she insisted.
“Mags, I’ve worn baggie scrubs for eight years now. I can’t do skinny jeans.” She pushed me back toward the dressing room with instructions not to give up.
I went with the relaxed fit next. “Now this is what I’m talking about,” I mumbled to my reflection in the mirror, noting they were a little snug in the rear. I went out to show Maggie.
“Perfect.” She grabbed a short-sleeved Henley shirt from a nearby rack and held it up to me.
“I like the shirt, but I think it should be long sleeved.” I took and exchanged it for a green long sleeved one from the rack.
“Cole, it’s ninety-six degrees out there. You’ll die in long sleeves,” she said, lifting her brows.
“Maggie, we live in upstate New York. It’s cold nine months out of twelve. If I buy short sleeved shirts, I’ll get two or three months use at the most.”
She turned around and murmured one step at a time as she went through another rack of shirts.
“I think I’ll get the next size of jeans. These are a little snug.”
She twisted back to me. “Are you trying for the ‘my pants are hanging halfway down my butt’ look?” she asked.
“No.” The thought appalled me.
“Then don’t get the next size.” She handed me two long-sleeved shirts and I went back to try them on.
Daleigh McDermott ducked before another branch could slap her face. The woods surrounded her, reached for her, sucked the breath out of her. The darkness was an enemy all in itself, and right now the nighttime stalked her. She couldn’t escape its death grip.
The trees blended together, morphing into an endless landscape that repeated itself over and over. Where was she? Which direction was help?
She couldn’t afford to stop and gather her thoughts. The men were on her trail. She could hear their footsteps in the distance, only moments behind her. Quick and urgent. In pursuit.
A bullet flew past her shoulder. Her breath caught again and perspiration invaded her skin like an army of fear moving in for the kill.
Her gaze skittered in front of her, as her steps faltered for a moment. A fallen tree seemed familiar, like she’d passed it before. Could she be running right back into the hands of her father’s killer? Right back into the den of terror she’d discovered? Right back to the point where her life flashed in front of her eyes?
No, she couldn’t think like that. She had to keep moving. Keep fighting to live.
She dodged a cypress tree. A broken, low-lying branch snagged her skin and pain ripped through her thigh.
She yelped, biting back any more telltale groans. She couldn’t let the men find her. She chomped down in an effort to remain silent. Blood soaked her taste buds.
She had to keep moving. With one hand, she covered the wound on her leg. Something wet and warm saturated her fingers. Her blood. Her throat went dry at the thought.
Run, Daleigh. Run. Her life depended on getting away.
She limped forward, her breath now coming in ragged gasps. How many more people had died? How many people had been casualties in this lust for money and power?
Everyone she thought she could trust had let her down. Well, almost everyone. Her heart lurched as unfinished conversations slammed into her mind.
A shout echoed behind her. Her heart stuttered as fear wrapped its talons around her again. She had to keep moving, despite the pain, despite the fear.
Two more steps, and her foot slipped. The ground disappeared beneath her.
The river, she realized.
She’d reached the river, and its black depths waited to swallow her.
She gasped, realizing she may not have the strength to fight the watery grave awaiting her.
Layla closed her eyes and took in a deep shaky breath, still trying to gain control. She was surprised when Michael sighed and then pulled her into his arms again. She shocked herself even more by putting her arms around his waist as he held her tightly and more tears seeped out of her eyes, wetting his dress shirt. When she finally pulled away, he let her go slowly. “Is there something I can do? Has someone hurt you or upset you?” he asked, his eyes going hot and dangerous.
Layla shook her head, smiling as she moved away from him so she could grab a towel to wipe her eyes. “No, not really. It’s nothing like that. Well, yes and no, I guess. I um, used to be a social worker before I came here. I had a really rough year and I burned out. Max was kind enough to rip open a few unhealed wounds just now and you walked in at the wrong time. Sorry,” she said, looking away, feeling awkward.
Michael frowned and stepped toward her, taking her shoulders in his hands. “Don’t be sorry,” he said softly shaking his head at her. “Just let me help.”
Layla looked up at him and dabbed at her eyes again as they refused to stop leaking. “You don’t even know me Michael. Why in the world would you want to help me?” she asked, trying to grip the shreds of her dignity together and put a little distance between them.
Michael frowned down into her eyes as he looked deep. “Let me in Layla. I’ll help you heal and maybe you can help me heal. And in the end, we’ll both be better. Friends?” he asked with a slight smile around his mouth.
Layla blinked in surprise and bit her lip. Helping each other heal? Friends? “No,” she said automatically.
Michael grinned down into her eyes, making her heart catch. “I was hoping you’d say that,” he said and then leaned forward a few inches and kissed her softly.
Layla jerked back in surprise, but he held her firmly in place, tilting his head to the side in order to kiss her more fully. Layla felt light headed and her sore heart started beating faster as her hands reached up to push at his chest. He moved to her cheek and her temple, kissing her softly and she found instead of her hands pushing, she was grasping onto him, as if she didn’t, she’d fall.
He pulled back and stared down into her eyes. “That’s a good start,” he said with his crooked smile.
Layla licked her lips and started to say something, but she heard the front door bang open as her sisters returned from the store. Michael looked up at the sound and moved back a few steps right as Kit and Jane breezed in holding bags in both arms.
“Hey Layla, we’re back,” Kit said with a smile and then noticed Michael standing in the kitchen. She turned with raised eyebrows to look at Layla, but then frowned and hurried to her sister’s side, practically throwing the bags on the counter.
“Layla! What’s happened? Tell me!” Kit ordered throwing her arms around her sister’s shoulders.
Jane stood just inside the kitchen, holding her bags and looking unsure and upset. She looked at Michael suspiciously. “Michael, what’s going on here?”
Michael walked over to Jane and took the bags out of her hands. “I’ll let Layla explain it to you. I just stopped by to see if I can bring Stella over later this afternoon. She’s been after me for days to drop by for another treat and I thought I’d better ask before we barge in on you,” he said, looking at Layla with soft worried eyes.
Jane walked over to Layla who was blotting her eyes again. Layla looked at Michael over Kit’s shoulder and nodded. “Please bring her Michael. I could use a little sunshine today if you don’t mind.”
Michael nodded and walked out, leaving the sisters alone in the kitchen. Jane walked over to Kit and Layla and threw her arms around both of her sisters at the same time.
“I don’t know what’s going on here, but it’s killing me,” Jane said, with tears in her voice too.
Kit nodded and pulled back, with tears on her cheeks. “If you cry, we all cry,” she said with a wavery voice.
Layla laughed through her tears and pulled her sisters over to the counter so she could sit down. After all the crying she’d done, she felt empty and exhausted. Purged.
“I’m okay. I was just having a conversation with Max and she brought up a case that still hurts me from last year. Our grandmother had shown her a newspaper clipping of me that she’d kept I guess. She told me that I was bleeding inside and that if I didn’t let someone in that I would die. She left and I kind of fell apart. Michael walked in and saw me sobbing my heart out and there you have it. I’ve never been so embarrassed in my entire life,” she admitted, looking away.
Kit leaned her head on her hand as she stared at her sister, her eyes filled with sympathy. “Oh Layla, I’m so freaking sorry. Michael looked kind of torn up when we walked in. I thought it was something he’d done at first,” she said, grabbing her sister’s hand.
Layla shook her head and smiled in gratitude as Jane handed her some tissues. Layla took a moment to blow her nose loudly before continuing. “No, Michael was actually . . . pretty sweet about the whole thing. He put his arms around me and kind of, um, held me while I cried my eyes out.”
Jane and Kit stared at each other wide eyed and then stared at their sister. “Holy crap,” Jane breathed out. “I cannot believe this.”
Layla pushed her hair out of her face and looked at Jane in surprise. “What? That I cried my eyes out or that Michael was so nice about it?”
Kit looked at Jane and nodded. “No, we’re surprised that our tougher than nails, I don’t need anyone especially some rotten man, sister allowed a man to comfort her. Wow,” Kit said, shaking her head.
Jane nodded. “I would have never believed it.”
Layla frowned and stood up, walking over to the fridge to grab a water bottle. She felt a little weak and dehydrated after all her crying. “Look guys, you might think I’m tough and mean and all that, but it turns out I’m pretty human. I hurt, I cry and sometimes, it feels good to have someone hold you while you hurt and cry,” she said, surprising herself to realize that it was true.