Here's a tempting little tease of Last Sweet Surrender...just for you!
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The first sign of trouble should have been the teetering green head of iceberg lettuce that seemed poised to spill from the overstuffed fabric grocery bag.
But Lena Anderson hustled along with eyes only for the lovely snow drifts so perfect and white next to the wide sidewalk gracefully bending between charming, Alpine-style condo units. With a smile lurking on her lips, she breathed in the crisp air and admired the patches of brilliant blue sky peeking around fluffy alabaster clouds.
Lena’s second hint of disaster might have been the sporadic patches of ice missed by the salt so nicely thrown down by the condo resort’s diligent maintenance crew. But her focus was on the heavy burdens hanging on her arms.
She shifted the eight grocery sacks as they cut into the soft flesh of her arms and hands. She picked up the pace as it was still another fifty yards to the door of her unit, and the bags were as heavy as if they’d been packed with lead weights.
Laughter rang out and a blur of white whizzed by Lena’s cheek. That should have been the third sign.
Lena jerked back and squeaked as the wayward lettuce wobbled on the edge of the sack.
Lena glanced to the left and saw a small pack of teen boys all with snowballs poised and ready to rip. They waved and looked guilt free. To her right, she saw the other half of their squad with equally mischievous gleams in their eyes. They couldn’t have been more than twelve or thirteen.
She couldn’t help but grin back at them. Lord, she was such an easy target.
“No problem, boys,” Lena said with a cheery lilt in her voice and a choppy wave of her hand with her arm sagging under the array of sacks.
Her final sign was the outbreak of boyish giggles. Whoosh. Splat! A snow blob smacked her square between the shoulder blades. Snow and ice spattered. Lena stumbled and wobbled.
“Hey!” Little creeps, couldn’t they see she was overloaded with groceries?
A flurry of white spheres cluttered up the air, and Lena ducked her head down and hit her afterburner. Her legs went from trot to sprint.
She saw a shadow approaching, and she squinted up. A tall mass in dark gray loomed right up in front of her. She caught a blur of longish, dark blond beard and sleek sunglasses.
She stutter-stepped. Ice. Her right foot skittered.
As she shuffled and slid, Lena’s arms flailed, heavy sacks collided and banged against her body. She heard the man shout out.
A frigid snow bomb exploded on the back of her head. Her booted foot took off, and the groceries vaulted through the crisp, wintery air.
The next thing she knew, she was lying flat on a frozen embankment. No air in her lungs. She tried to gasp, but nothing. She stared up at the patches of blue sky and wondered if this was it. She was a deflated pancake.
Seriously, was death by snowball a thing?
With a chest splintering whoosh, the blessed air swooped back into her.
Cough. Sputter. Wheeze. Moan.
“Hey, you shitty kids!” a deep voice yelled.
Lena studied the man in gray. He sounded pissed. What was he upset about? She was the one on the ground.
A flurry of feet pounding and thumping.
“Hey, dude! Chill, man!”
Lena raised up and saw a giant of a man holding an indignant teen by the back of his puffy blue jacket. Half a pair of sunglasses dangled off one ear of the gray hulk while the remains of a whopper snowball were packed in his beard.
“What’s wrong with you, punk? You and your buddies could’ve killed this lady.”
“Man, she looks okay to me,” replied the teen. He twitched and pulled away, but the giant’s iron grip didn’t budge.
“What’s wrong with you?” the man in gray said. “It’s icy. Anybody could slip and crack a skull. And all her groceries messed up, and my glasses are trashed. What were you thinking?”
The bearded man released the kid and let him thump down in the snow, but he kept a careful grip on the punk’s coat. A blood vessel pulsed on the big man’s temple.
“Apologize,” the man said in a voice of arctic steel.
Lena was startled at the anger simmering beneath the chill of his voice.
“Huh?” The teen swung his head back and forth between Lena and the furious man with wide, goggly eyes.
Lena choked back a laugh at the teen’s confused expression.
The man growled, and Lena felt a tremor of worry. He sounded like a leashed beast.
“Let me go, man. Dude, what’s wrong with you?”
“Who are your friends, little man?”
Lena sat up, and both her rescuer and the kid glanced her direction. Even in his thick coat, the teen was scrawny, a beaky nose and scattering of freckles were his only remarkable traits as his knit cap covered what must have been close-cropped hair. She idly wondered if it was ginger to match his pale complexion and freckles. She flicked her attention to the giant of a man who still held a handful of blue jacket.
Her heart skipped a beat. He towered over her and must have easily been almost six feet five. He was in body-skimming workout gear that revealed every rippling ab and each cut of biceps and triceps. Her breath caught at the top of her chest as if all the air had been knocked out of her again.
Behold the body of a Greek god. Warmth trickled through her veins, and she barely detected the chill of the snow seeping into the seat of her jeans. His eyes were slate-gray, and his eyelashes were stupidly long.
His jaw was covered up by his full, dirty blond beard but she could detect high cheekbones and a sleek, straight nose. But his eyes held all her attention. The eyes of a stormy, windswept ocean…so gray they were almost black.
Her Greek god stared back at her, she blinked once, and her fingertips twitched to reach out to him. The flinty anger in his eyes softened to a pearly gray as his gaze raked over her body. A small sigh trilled across her lips.
There was a flare of heat in his eyes and then a question. His mouth twitched as if he wished to speak. Lena flushed, but stared back as if mesmerized, like a rabbit caught in a snare. Finally, the spell broke, and she blinked.
“I’m fine,” Lena said.
“See, dude! She’s fine.” The teen wrestled to get free of the man’s grip.
The steely look flashed back into her rescuer’s eyes.
He tightened his hold on the back of the teen’s coat and raised him off the ground about an inch and rotated him in a small arc. The kid was all huddled up in his jacket with the zipper pressing into his throat.
“Her stuff is scattered everywhere. You and your buddies did that.”
The giant tossed the teen toward the snow, and the kid stumbled a few feet.
A protest formed on Lena’s lips.
“Now say you’re sorry and help her clean it all up,” the Greek god growled as he idly knocked a chunk of snow out of his beard, but his half a sunglass still dangled unnoticed from his ear.
The teen mumbled, ducked his head and started picking up cartons of yogurt that were scattered on the snowy ground.
The man offered Lena a gloved hand. Lena smiled tentatively and shook off the one remaining grocery bag lodged in the crook of her arm.
With a quick flex of his arm, he yanked Lena to her feet. His hand enveloped hers and held her steady until she was confident in her stance.
Lena’s jeans shifted, and a cold, wet spot on her tush sent a shiver up her spine.
“Better?” He had a low, rumbly voice that resonated in the cold air.
Lena stamped off the heaps of snow from her boots. A twinge of pain tweaked through her leg and butt. She shook her leg gingerly, but the ache seemed minor.
“No real damage,” Lena said. “I think the snow took the brunt of my fall. My foot skidded on that patch of ice but luckily I crash landed on the snow. No harm, no foul, I guess.”
The man in gray merely grunted and swatted at the busted shades dangling from his ear. He untangled the frames from his ear and stuffed them disgustedly in his pocket. They looked expensive. Spendy trash now unless there was some warranty, she thought idly.
No wonder he was grumpy. Lena shrugged.
Without another word, he picked up a sack and rapidly gathered the scattered fruits and the bedraggled head of lettuce.
From the corner of her eye, Lena saw the teen survey the back of the big man, then spring to his feet and launch his getaway.
There went one helper. Lena sighed.
At the pounding of the teen’s feet on the snow, the man straightened. One mighty curse word erupted out of his mouth as he dropped the bag of produce. The abused groceries spilled all over the snow again.
As if in a slow motion cut from a movie, the man flexed his fingers around the red orb in his palm and raised it appraisingly. With a single plump tomato cupped in his hand, the giant wound up and launched a fastball at the retreating miscreant.
Boing, squish! It bounced off the kid’s shoulder and splatted on the sandy gold building as the snowballer disappeared around the corner. With a fresh curse, her grouchy rescuer hit a full sprint in less than two seconds, and he too disappeared around the building.
Lena’s mouth fell open. That was one angry, determined dude.
Lena’s internal warning bells clanged in her brain. Irritation was fine…but why on earth was he so furious? Greek god, indeed. More like Mr. Anger Management Issues, Lena thought with a scowl.
What would have happened if he’d had a can of corn in his hand? Would he have thrown that fastball anyway? The poor kid would’ve needed a trip to the ER!
Mr. Anger Management was a menace. Echoes of old, hateful voices filled her ears. The hurtful words of her mother. The withering barbs from her husband. Temper was dangerous.
The sunlight dimmed, and Lena shivered as the sun dipped below the top of the three-story buildings.
With a whoosh of air to dispel the knot of worry in her belly, Lena cleared her mind and chased off thoughts of angry men. Those miserable people were long gone now. There was nothing to fear.
Lena stood by herself in the fading light of the setting December sun with her groceries dumped haphazardly over the courtyard. She propped her arms on her hips, and her booted foot tapped the snow in a muffled staccato.
The bearded dude was missing in action. Of course. No one to help clean up now. The guys run off and go all Rambo and testosterone-y. Stupid, gorgeous rescue dude. He was supposed to stick around and help. Whatever. She was used to cleaning up messes.
Lena stomped around the snow with a scowl pulling down the corners of her mouth. She chucked the random bits and pieces of her grocery trip into the tattered bags. The bananas were already showing black bruises through the thick yellow skin, and two of the apples had gouges ripped through the red skin revealing the creamy white flesh beneath.
“Rotten punks,” Lena grumbled.
A snowball prank gone bad. She wondered if the kid and his friends were locals here in Vail or if they were staying with family for the holidays in the condo resort. No matter what, they’d make themselves scarce now!
With a sigh, she scooped up the last of the scattered juice boxes that were her daughter’s favorite and conjured a smile. No real damage. Only her dignity and maybe ten dollars of lost organic produce.
“Still need help?”
A deep, manly voice interrupted her thoughts. Lena turned and lo and behold it was Mr. Anger Management Issues, aka the Greek god. Yep. He still had those amazing flinty dark eyes. She glanced away as irritation buzzed between her ears. It was a little late to pick up the mess.
“As you can see, I’ve picked up all ten bags worth of groceries, thank you very much.” Lena’s tone was tart. “Did you bag your miscreant? Bring him up on federal charges? Or did he outwit you and make it safely over the border?”
Mr. Anger Management lurched back as if she’d pushed him, and his eyebrows flew up in confusion. His helpful look disintegrated into annoyance.
“I see your attitude is about as soggy as the ass of your jeans.”
Lena glared and felt her fingers itching to flip him off. She fought off the childish urge. Zen. Remember your happy place. Anger resolved nothing. Right?
“I’d been hoping that you might’ve stuck around to help clean up the carnage, but don’t worry, I have it under control.” Lena planted a beatific smile on her lips and made sure her eyes purred forth her contented state. She was not angry. In fact, she was rather amused, right? She squelched her annoyance with his smug expression and superior attitude.
“My specialty isn’t clean up,” he said. “I made sure the kids quit their attack. That was a hell of a squeal when you landed. I thought you’d broken something.”
Lena bristled. Squeal! Like a piglet? Jerk. She was so done with this man.
Lena straightened up like a poker, swung around and marched down the path to her unit.
“Here, hand me some of those,” Mr. Anger Management said.
He was one step behind her. Lena ignored him.
“Don’t get all offended,” he said, and his voice sounded like he was cajoling a three-year-old. “Someone offers to help, and you get all uppity.”
He grasped her shoulder, and she shot him a frozen look. He let it drop away.
“Hey, I’m your next-door neighbor. Not some random creep. Let me help you get these to your place. I can see you’re limping.”
Lena hesitated and stared at all the bags crammed onto her arms and the straps creasing the fabric of her jacket. The giant extended his hands again.
“Come on, let me help,” he said. “I’m Jax.”
His words should have soothed her ruffled feelings, but they didn’t. His tone was peremptory, and his body language was overbearing. He set her teeth on edge.
Lena didn’t let her smile waver and said at her sweetest, but with a hint of underlying steel, “Don’t worry, big guy. I got this. A well-aimed snowball isn’t going to spoil my day. I’m perfectly able to walk a few more yards to my doorstep. I’m fine on my own.”
With a flounce of hair and a lifted chin, she sauntered down the path. She picked up her pace but was careful to go easy. The last thing she needed was another spill right in front of Jax, the arrogant rescuer.
With her lips pressed firmly together, Lena held off a wince. A dagger of pain shot through right derriere cheek. He was right, she was limping.
Crap. She slowed, and she knew Jax’s gaze was drilling into her back. A little more and she’d be at the steps of her rental unit. Don’t look back, don’t look back. Her foot slid a few inches on slick ice. She flung her arms out for some extra balance, and the blasted lettuce trembled precariously.
Lena tipped back with her arm waving crazily. Her foot took off. She squawked like a plucked chicken and careened sideways into a large, spiky shrubbery.
Jax’s laughter echoed through the courtyard.
“Stubborn wench,” Jax said with an oh-so-superior tone.
Temper and humiliation warred in her heart. A hot, stinging tear threaten to spill over. She squeezed her eyes tight and willed away the weakness.
“Open your eyes,” Jax commanded. “Quit pretending I’m not here.”
Lena popped her eyes open and glared. “I’m fine. Go away.”
Jax chuckled again. “You managed to keep all the bags intact this time, but the shrub kind of took it in the shorts.”
“Shut up and leave me alone.”
Jax smiled maddeningly.
Lena raised up, but the sharp spines of the bush yarded her back. It pulled at her jacket in a dozen spots, and her knit cap was completely held hostage.
Jax towered over her with a smirk on that ridiculously handsome, chiseled face.
“Give me the bags, and then I’ll help you up.”
She wrestled against the spiny octopus and knew she must look like a stranded sea turtle with flippers a flailing.
“Fine!” Lena glared up at Jax but released the bags.
As he scooped them all up in one hand, Lena gawked. He was a big man.
With a quick swipe, Jax grabbed the front of her puffy jacket and pulled her out of the sea beast of a shrub. She could hear the fabric of her coat ripping and her knit cap succumbed to the wrath of the thorny shrub. The cap dangled by one knit loop on the smashed greenery.
Jax held her dangling in the air for a microsecond, and Lena squished the protest begging to burst through her lips. She cursed her five-feet-two frame and held still. She would not let her feet wiggle or dangle in the air. She was not a trophy salmon to be held on display. What an asshat.
Lena focused on his face. He was muscle-y and gorgeous. Her heart lurched. Was it somehow more humiliating that her two-time rescuer was so dazzling? His mouth was curved in a sardonic smile, and she bit back the urge to let her fingertips whisper across his full lips. Her breath caught and for a moment, it seemed as if Jax was leaning closer too.
Jax’s gaze was steady and questioning. She was lost in the deep gray and the hint of a promise. For a moment, there was a peaceful quiet in them. As if she’d found a safe resting place. A haven from the hectic world. She was at home. One side of her mouth crept up in a slow smile. Almost of recognition.
Jax blinked once and surprise rippled across his face.
The front door of Lena’s condo flew open and a fair-haired moppet popped into view. She was arrayed in pink leggings, a lime green tulle tutu, an orange and white striped pullover sweater, and a pair of fuzzy cream-colored boots.
Jax couldn’t help but grin at the small elf who seemed to be no more than five or six. With a brief blink of her long lashes, the elf stared at Jax.
“Who’s that, Momma?” the fairy elf asked.
Jax looked down at the woman he still held in one hand. She was a petite thing and hardly seemed to weigh more than the sum total of the grocery sacks in his other hand.
Jax admired her blonde hair that was curling in a riotous, tangled circus from her collision with the thorny shrub. And her blue-green eyes which had been so warm and friendly the moment before were shooting sharp sparks of irritation.
He stared back at those flashing aqua blue eyes and didn’t move. An answering tingle of awareness slid through him, and a smirk teased the corners of his lips and eyes. He was enjoying her discomfort.
“Put me down, you big…” her voice trailed off as she swatted a fist at his chest.
Jax shut down his sly smile and lowered her down the last few inches to the sidewalk. She glared, and Jax put on his most innocent “what?” expression.
She wrinkled up her nose and gave him a supercilious nod of faux thanks. Jax tried not to laugh.
“Are you okay, Mrs. Anderson?”
An older woman with short silver hair and a rail slim body moved beside the little girl. Her forehead was crinkled in concern, and her lips were pinched into a thin line. Jax felt a funny flick of disappointment at the “missus” moniker. Married, huh?
The elf child zoomed to her mother and hugged her leg.
“I’m fine, Katelyn. I’m fine,” his snowball victim said with one hand ruffling the hair of her child and the other waving off the older woman. “I…um, took a little tumble and this…uh, gentleman,” she paused and regarded Jax with an arched eyebrow, “helped me out of the bushes.”
As if on cue, all four of them glanced toward the flattened greenery and noted the brown and pink knit cap dangling by a droopy pom-pom. It had possibly already seen it best days.
“Oh, Momma. Auntie made that for you,” the elf said. “Now, it won’t match mine anymore.” The girl darted over and attempted to untangle it but only managed to pull loose more long loops of yarn. “Uh-oh, it’s toast!”
The girl looked at her mother and then up at Jax. He winked at her, and the elf child giggled back at him. With a cheerful green gaze, she contemplated him for a long moment with a knowing half-smile. Jax had a feeling that she’d taken his measure and found him acceptable.
Katelyn was a pint-sized charmer. A peculiar, tickly gladness glowed in his chest, and Jax shook his head in wonderment.
The older woman stared at him and then slowly her expression turn from concern to acceptance. Somehow, he had won over two of the three ladies standing on the doorstep in front of him.
He peered down at Mrs. Anderson, but she was focused on the bedraggled brown hat.
The older woman bustled down the two steps and demanded the long-suffering grocery bags from Jax’s arms. She made a tsk-tsk noise as she sized up the tumbled disaster of crushed fruits and veggies and bent boxes of crackers.
“Ellie, let me take some of those,” Lena said as she passed the lamented knit cap to her daughter. “Katelyn, can you help Ellie and take one of the bags?”
Jax intervened and handed a light sack to Katelyn. It only held some whole grain, baked chips, and two boxes of granola bars.
“I’m helping,” Katelyn sung out happily and with a quick scrunch of her nose, the elf grinned at Jax and then danced up the steps and into the warmly lit entry. The thin, older woman followed.
With a cool and composed stare, Mrs. Anderson extended her hands for the rest of the groceries. Jax relinquished them wordlessly.
“Thank you.” It was forced and somehow ungrateful.
“You’re welcome,” Jax said. He kept his tone level and fought the impulse to say something to get under her skin. He wanted to see those blue-green eyes flash again.
She whirled away, and her honey-hued curls flew around her. She reeked of attitude and sass.
“Don’t trip,” Jax said helpfully.
She spun back, and Jax was rewarded with an indignant avalanche of sparks shooting from her glaring eyes.
“Do you need help, Mrs. Anderson,” the older woman asked as she leaned back through the doorway.
“No. No. I’ve got it,” she said and marched over the threshold. “Ellie, you know you don’t have to call me Mrs. Anderson. I only answer to Lena. Mrs. Anderson was my mother.”
As the door swung shut, Jax heard her give a small giggle. His lips twitched upward. She didn’t give an inch and hadn’t looked back. She was a wisp of a woman, but stubborn and determined. He chuckled. Lena. He liked the way the “ell” rolled. Lena Anderson. His snowball rescuee sounded like there was no Mr. Anderson in the mix. Maybe his day had turned lucky.
Jax took in the dimming sky and was surprised that it was almost dusk. The courtyard was still and quiet except for the rise and fall of voices from behind the Anderson’s closed front door and then a short burst of girlish merriment.
A cheerful little family and he was on the wrong side of the door. The dark condo across the courtyard was his abode for the next week or two. No lights. No warm welcome for him. He was here in Vail by himself. Once again, he was in a temporary home.
Jax’s half-smile faded. He hadn’t been here in Vail since long before his last skiing accident. No, it had never been home here. He and his dad had only ever rented when they’d been here for ski training camps.
He could only remember his scowling, serious father stalking around whatever temporary, cramped apartment they called home for the day. Had there been laughter at his house when his mother was still alive?
Jax shrugged and wondered what the hell had gotten into him. It must be because Vail had been the last place he’d lived in with his father. Right before that last epic training run crash in Park City that had demolished his knee for good. No more competitive downhill skiing or Olympic dreams. Jax swallowed the bitterness. His body had failed him. And his father.
With a quick pivot, Jax strode back across the courtyard to his condo. He fumbled with the key and cursed under his breath.
This was the sixth place in four months. He still felt restless and wished he hadn’t come back to Vail. A vision of his glowering father slipped out of his memory bank. Grinding, nonstop practice runs and endless drills. No, he’d never thought Jax was training hard enough. Always one more workout. Give it more effort. Faster. Sharper. He needed to care more. The echoes of his father’s voice pounded inside his skull.
Jax flung the keys on the sleek, black entry table, stopped and inhaled slowly. No point in getting worked up. He flicked on more lights and cruised to the pool table that took up the space where a dining table would have been.
Jax raised his eyebrows appreciatively. Thank you, Bryce Sterling, for a bachelor’s man cave style retreat. His old ski teammate was living a hectic life in New York City managing a hedge fund, but he kept this gorgeous condo in the heart of Vail for the occasional ski retreat and getaway…or temporary waystation for an old friend.
Pool now, shower later, he decided. Jax made a beeline for the fridge and popped open a rich, dark ale. A game of pool required a cold brew. He drained it down in a few gulps. Ah, hoppy goodness. He smacked his lips and eyed the empty bottle, but he grimaced the next moment with a sharp look at his abs. He might not be in world class ski form anymore, but no point in turning into a banana slug. He grunted with irritation.
“What the hell.” One more wouldn’t be a disaster.
He snagged another bottle and an icy glass from the freezer and poured the beverage down its side to prevent an over foaming. One more to keep him company.
Jax racked up the pool balls, and the sharp crack as he broke ripped a contented sigh from his throat. With much clicking and bouncing off the green baize table, a yellow striped ball rolled obediently into a pocket. His mood instantly lightened. Jax fiddled with his phone and placed it on the metal and glass bistro table and commanded it to play his messages.
Ten voice mails.
“Hey, buddy! Rennie here.” It was his agent. “Devon’s team is ecstatic with the last photo shoot, and they want to do another. I know it’s not your favorite, but it’s in the contract so I agreed to it. They bought some Super Bowl airtime, so get ready for a fresh commercial. I’ll e-mail the details. Flight’s on the twenty-seventh and filming the next day. They’ll put you up at the usual place.”
The message ended. No goodbyes or catch-ya-laters. When Rennie was done talking that was that. How long had he actually agreed to be in ads for his athletic wear? He shook his head. Five years was going to seem like an eternity. He’d sold the company because he was bored out of his mind, but he was part of the brand and image. He snorted. It paid the bills and kept the lights on. At least until he figured out his new plan of action. What next? Next was a black hole of mystery.
Jax rubbed a hand across his beard. Maybe that was the problem. He was bored. He’d made all the money he needed. No more competitive sports. What now? He shot another striped ball across the green felt and watched it ricochet off a solid blue and zoom straight into a side pocket.
He deleted the first message. Next.
“Dude, it’s Nick. Have you made it into town yet? If you’ve got time, we’re doing one of those wedding rehearsal dinners on Thursday, but Brett’s planning a little after party. Nothing crazy. Text me, bro.”
Ha! That’s why he’d come back to Vail. Nick Olin was getting married in a week. Poor sucker. He twirled the pool cue and poked a few more pool balls into pockets. He missed the third shot.
Dinner with Nick’s in-laws-to-be sounded less than thrilling. He’d be previously engaged for that, but a bachelor party would liven things up.
Jax listened to the other messages, but none held his attention. There were a few invites to parties back in New York. He guessed they’d figure out he’d left the city sooner or later. The thought of another art gallery premiere made him feel like puking. Jax abandoned the pool cue and picked up his phone. Last message.
“Jax, man, did I see you coming out of the Aria today? Are you in Vail? I saw some guy with a full on beard wearing your brand of gear. Swing by if you can. I’m doing classes at the Lionshead. I think I owe you dinner or something.”
He grinned at his phone. No way a new, long beard was going to hide him from Mac Wagner. Mac and Nick had made his senior year in high school bearable. Perhaps a dose of that pair would get him out of this funk.
Jax stroked his beard again and hoped it would keep him incognito for a while longer. He was sick of the media and the social merry-go-round. He simply wanted to ski a little, chill out, and get Nick married off. And maybe, take another look at the sexy blonde across the way. He tipped back the last of his beer.
It was kind of fun to ruffle her feathers, and she was a shapely bundle. She couldn’t be much above a hundred pounds sopping wet and clearly was barely more than five feet tall. She’d been easy to lift out of the shrubs, but her attitude was anything but. She’d blasted him with her temper, and certainly done her best to get rid of him. So much for gratitude after he’d chased off her snowball assassins.
A slow smile spread across his full lips as he remembered the curve of her lush cheeks in her snug jeans…with the gigantic damp spot from where she’d landed in the snow. She was small, but she packed a lot of wow into that little package.
He felt a response down low and wondered how long it had been since a woman had turned his head. Months he supposed. He and Jenna had bored each other, and her little stunt with the press had finished it for sure.
When had he last seen her? It was at least four months he figured. He was way overdue he thought with a shrug and tried to ignore the heat below his belt.
Jax punched up some food options on his phone and tried to remember who delivered besides the pizza joint. Maybe Mediterranean.
Jax looked out the window, and the soft glow of lights across the courtyard was inviting. He could imagine Lena and Katelyn sitting down to eat dinner. They were a cute family.
The knot in his belly eased and a fleeting sense of calm breezed through him, but he couldn’t fathom why.
With a slow, last arabesque and a jingle from her bracelets, Lena ended her yoga pose, rolled up the floor mat, and tucked it away on the closet shelf in her bedroom. There was still a stretchy twinge of muscle pain in her bottom, but she’d worked out most of it.
An image of Jax popped into her mind, and a flush crept up her face. He was all yummy and lumbersexual with that full, dark gold beard. And a completely ripped body. Her pulse thumped into high gear thinking about how every lean, sinewy muscle rippled and bulged through his dark gray running leggings and snug, long sleeve compression shirt. A sexy, giant, running lumbersexual. With a temper.
That was Mr. Anger Management, she scolded herself. She had no need of that kind of negative energy. She’d gotten a suppressed rage vibe. She’d had more than enough of that in her life. Her husband, Adam.
It had been six years since the car crash that had ended his life. She waited for the old familiar knot of anxiety and uncertainty, but her nerves held steady. He’d been awful to her that last day. He’d been so angry, his tongue had lacerated her soul, and his fist bruised her face.
No, she didn’t trust anger.
In all fairness, Jax hadn’t been like that. He’d actually been kind of chivalrous with trying to rescue her from a ragtag band of snowball hellions. Lena stifled a snort.
She’d certainly irritated Jax, and he’d thrown back as good as she’d given. He’d been rude and obnoxious, but he hadn’t abused her or cut her down.
No, Jax hadn’t seemed like Adam at all. Jax the giant wasn’t that type of angry she supposed. Not the kind that hit women or told them that they were worthless.
With a flick of her wrist and the cheery rattle of her wrist bangles, Lena banished the images of Adam. That was the past. So long ago and so far away. Now she was back in Colorado and back into her “settle-quick” mode.
Lena gazed around the stylishly decorated room and tried to feel comfortable in the array of cream, beige, and gold country shabby chic. It was completely to her taste, but somehow it didn’t feel right. She felt a twinge of regret that she didn’t have her own furniture or decorations. This condo was merely one in a long list of charmingly furnished rentals that she and Katelyn had lived in for the last five years.
How many places had it been now? Portland, Cabo, Melbourne, Singapore, Florence, Edinburgh, Grand Cayman, and now Vail. Lena grinned at the laundry list of cities and closed her eyes for the blessing of Adam’s inheritance.
Vail. Mountains and snow. She’d thought she’d had enough of chilly weather after the nine months in Scotland. She shook her head that she’d so easily agreed with her brother, Brett, that she ought to stick around Vail and Wescott Springs so that Katelyn could get to know her cousins. Heck, she was surprised that she’d come back stateside for Nick Olin’s wedding.
Nick was Dana’s only brother, and Dana was her only sister-in-law. Family was family, and the wedding had been as good as an excuse as anything to get her out of the Caymans and the unwanted advances of her boss.
Lena pushed that out of her mind. No, it was almost a relief to come back to Colorado. Brett and Dana were so sweet and welcoming, and it did rather seem like home. Brett and Dana had taken her under their loving wings after her mother died right before high school graduation. Yes, thank goodness that Brett had heard her cry for help when she’d called him.
Lena’s stomach tightened, and she felt off-kilter. Home. She was a stranger to the word. As a kid, her mother and her weed-smoking boyfriends had dragged her all over the United States. As an adult she’d moved pretty much every year, maybe she had too much of her mother in her.
Lena shook off the disturbing thought.
“Mom! Can I have some more juice?” Katelyn called from down in the living room.
Lena jerked back into the moment. Joy blossomed in her spirit at the sound of her fair-haired elf-child, no doubt planted in front the television.
“Did you finish your yogurt?”
“Yes,” Katelyn said in a cheerful voice.
“Sure then. Do you need my help pouring? I think Ellie put the juice on the bottom shelf in the fridge door.”
“Okay, what? Do you need help?”
Lena waited for a response, but only heard the sound of cartoons on the TV. The oh-so-independent Miss Katelyn must have it all under control. Who knew an elfin fairy would be so self-possessed and assured?
Lena came down half of the stairwell steps until she could see Katelyn strolling out of the kitchen clutching a plastic cup.
“I’m going to take my shower now, and I want you to finish up your juice, put the cup in the sink, and then get ready for your ski lesson. I put your new ski suit on the bed.”
Katelyn nodded and sank back into the sofa with her green eyes glued to the dancing carrots and grapes on the screen.
Forty-five minutes later the pair of them jumped onto a shuttle bus headed to Lionshead and Katelyn’s first lessons on the slopes. As Katelyn gawked at the crush of pedestrians strolling past the elegant shops, Lena tapped out a text to Dana, who was knee deep in the planning of her brother’s wedding to Krissa Courtland. There was probably an errand or two she might be able to assist on.
The rehearsal dinner was on Thursday and Lena’s number one job was to arrange the Friday girls’ spa day of pampered relaxation, and fortunately, there was no shortage of amazing spas to choose from. Lena hummed happily in expectation of divine mani-peds, massages, and facials. She’d met the bride, Krissa at Thanksgiving dinner the previous Thursday and a round of girl gossip was the perfect way to get to know her better.
It was a luxury to have some built-in friends in a brand new town although half of the fun of a new place was the challenge of finding a new group of friends and like-minded free spirits. Better yet, she now had a built-in babysitter in Dana and Brett, so maybe she’d be able to go out more in the evenings.
“Will there be other kids at the lesson?” Katelyn asked as the bus trundled to a stop for the third time in five minutes.
“I’m sure there will. Maybe you’ll make a new friend or two.”
Katelyn chattered about what skiing might be like and scattered in questions about Santa and Christmas and what they should give to her cousins. Lena replied absently as she scrolled through news stories on her smartphone.
Her phone chirped back a response from Dana. Nope. No other chores. All she needed to do is focus on Friday’s retreat.
The trolley stopped again, and a fresh batch of skiers and tourists trooped on board. Lena glanced up from her phone when a dark golden beard caught her eye. It was Jax. Her cheeks burned, and she glued her gaze back to her phone. She would not look up.
As he walked by her seat, she saw the slightest hesitation in his step. She kept her head down. Ignore him. It was the only way.
Jax moved by in the flow of skis, bags, and fluffy, puffy coats. Lena breathed out and was shocked that she’d been holding her breath. She’d better distract Katelyn. The uber-friendly tot was sure to spot their neighbor and want to start a conversation.
“Hey, baby, there’s Santa standing on the corner,” Lena said. “Do you see him?”
Katelyn pressed her face against the window.
“I see him! I see him!”
Lena wished her daughter wasn’t so enthusiastic. So much for keeping a low profile. She was sure she could feel Jax staring in their direction. She suppressed a groan.
The shuttle squeaked and jolted to a halt. It was their stop. Thank goodness.
Almost everyone rose and pushed forward to get to the ski runs. As they stepped off the bus, Lena moved to the side and tried to get her bearings. The sea of people were a blur of skis, helmets, boots, and excited chatter. Lena didn’t see Jax anywhere and relief trickled through her.
“Where to, Mom?”
“First we need to check in, and then we’ll get some skis and boots that are perfect for your size,” Lena said. “I think we go over there.”
Lena pointed to the right as she swung her backpack over her shoulder. The bus’s shadow passed over them and a muffled thunk-splat followed. The shuttle tire and a muddy, sloppy, snowy pothole collided. An icy, slushy splash smacked her from behind. Katelyn jumped and avoided the wave of brown slush. The muck slid down her legs in a frigid, chilling cascade. She shivered. Her jeans were plastered to the back of her legs.
A tall man with a dark blond beard stopped next to her.
“Do you own a dry pair of pants?”
Lena cringed. Of course. It was Jax. Sarcastic attitude and all.
Lena stuttered and mumbled, but not a single coherent word came out of her mouth. She flushed…again. Why was this man witness to her most disastrous moments? She wiggled and tugged at her jeans. The denim was stiffening and freezing in the brisk wind, and Lena shivered.
Jax grinned at her with a smile reached all the way to his eyes and took the sting out of the comment. Those smoky eyes that seemed to be daring her to smile back at him, but she resisted.
Lena scrunched her nose at Jax and glared back with a flash of annoyance. Lena lifted her head with a dismissive jerk.
“How delightful to see you again, too,” Lena said in a queenly voice. “You seem to bring misfortune with you, don’t you? I’m surprised you didn’t push me into the puddle.”
“Didn’t feel the need since you were doing a fine job on your own,” Jax replied. “Wet pants making you cranky again?”
His tone was honeyed, and his smirk jangled every nerve right up her neck to her ears. His gaze swept her body from top to bottom and Lena shivered again. A warmth erupted in Lena’s chest and slithered down her spine. Suddenly, she didn’t notice the chill, sodden denim clinging to her. Her pulse banged in her ears.
“Momma, you’re all wet,” Katelyn added helpfully.
Lena’s head snapped in surprise. What? She locked on Jax’s face. His flinty eyes fired with malicious glee. Lena vibrated with a responding tingle in her core. She broke eye contact, but she knew exactly what Jax was imagining. This isn’t happening, Lena told herself. Pretend Katelyn said nothing.
“See, my snow pants kept me dry,” Katelyn continued blithely. “You should’ve worn yours like Ellie said.”
Jax laughed out loud while Katelyn nodded like a shaman dispensing wisdom. Fabulous. Could this get any worse? Lena turned away and hunted for any kind of exit sign or at least a hint of the ski school.
“Are you here for a ski lesson too?” Katelyn said. The tot was done with soggy britches.
“No lessons for me,” Jax said. “I’m here to see a friend and ski a little. Is it your first time?”
“I’m going to skiing school,” Katelyn said with a chirp and a nose wrinkle. “I’m going to learn everything I need to know today.”
“I bet you will,” Jax said. “You’ll be the star of your class, I’m sure.”
Katelyn batted her lashes outrageously and shot Jax a winsome smile. She grabbed Lena’s hand and tugged.
“Come on. Let’s go. We don’t want to be late, right?”
Indeed little one, Lena thought. She was done with Jax and his sarcasm. Lena waved dismissively at Jax and plastered on a polite if cool smile.
“We won’t keep you any longer. Goodbye.”
“Bye bye,” Katelyn sang out with a jaunty half-wave of her mittened paw.
Lena focused all her thoughts on finding the ski school signage. She would not even peek behind her. Her soaked jeans clung to her tush, and she wished she wasn’t wearing the short jacket. Somehow, she was sure Jax’s eyes were glued to the curves of her backside. The warmth in her core burst into a flame.
Katelyn led the way with a steady tug on Lena’s arm. She seemed to be following the crowd, so Lena rolled with it. They would find the class somewhere soon, surely. A throng of bodies surrounded them, and Lena prayed that she’d disappeared from Jax’s view.
Lena looked back at the bus stop, and Jax was still in the same spot, leaning against his skis and poles. His pose was nonchalant and ever-so at ease. He lifted his chin in acknowledgment with a saucy smirk. As if he didn’t have a care in the world.
Lena whipped her head back around in a whirl of tangled curls. What a jerk. How dare he mock her. Damn her wet jeans. Why did she have to be the butt of the joke again? She groaned at her lame pun.
With her cheeks still ablaze, Lena navigated through the crowds and finally discovered the ski school. She signed all the waivers and helped a staffer get Katelyn all decked out in all the new ski paraphernalia.
Katelyn chattered away to the helpful teen staffer and Lena’s heart swelled with pride. Her little girl was born with a liberal sprinkling of fairy dust. She had such an easy way of making friends and spreading sunshine. I’m so lucky, Lena told herself.
Lena snapped a few pics and instantly posted them on her personal page so only friends and family could see the ski doll in pink and white prepping for her first lesson.
Twenty minutes later, Lena settled down in a busy coffee house with a steaming cup of minty hot chocolate and her diminutive laptop. Her legs were stiff in the still half-frozen jeans. Maybe the heat blasting from the baseboards would thaw her out in record time. A girl could hope.
With a quick check of the time, Lena guessed she had about thirty minutes before Katelyn’s class was done. A small ping of worry sounded in Lena’s brain. Katelyn was still so small and so young. She hoped her daughter wouldn’t crash or do a horrible face plant in the snow.
Katelyn would be fine. Calm down. Katelyn hadn’t been one bit perturbed to see her leave. Her only child had waved happily and then promptly turned back to Mac, the ski instructor. No doubt with those long lashes fluttering. That girl was a natural born flirt.
Mac the ski dude was nice looking. But not as nice as Jax. Lena scowled. Who cared if Jax was buffed out and had amazing come-hither eyes? He was a man with a temper and a sharp tongue. He had nothing but sarcasm to offer her, and he could’ve killed that poor kid from the snowball fight.
Lena giggled at the thought of the tomato streaking through the air and tagging the teen snowthug in the shoulder. Served him right.
So much for charitable thoughts and a Zen spirit. Lena laughed to herself. She was about as bloodthirsty for revenge as Jax.
Lena swigged back a gulp of hot chocolate and banned Jax from her thoughts. She needed to check in on her blog and post back some replies.
It was work time. No more steamy thoughts about Jax. She could barely remember if he had a six-pack or an eight-pack rack of abs. Not that she’d noticed each and every sinewy, cut muscle on display in his skin-tight workout clothes. She bit her lip to stifle a sigh.
* * * * *
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