Plan Ahead for SLACK FRIDAY: NOVEMBER 28, 2014
Avoid crazed shopping crowds! Keep calm and carry on at home with this great Merr-E Holiday Treat from Pocket Star eBooks!
Branded by Colette Auclair
Series: Aspen Valley #3
Published by Pocket Star on December 15, 2014
Genres: Contemporary Romance
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The third lighthearted romance in Colette Auclair’s award-winning Aspen Valley series, Branded will take readers on a wild and dreamy ride through the beautiful valleys and mountains of Colorado. Professional, polite, and pearl-wearing, dressage rider and resort consultant Cordy Sims is the last person anyone would expect to initiate a weekend of debauchery. And yet, that’s exactly what she does after meeting a handsome stranger at an Aspen resort. Agreeing that they’ll leave personal details at the door, they indulge in a memorable weekend of carnal recreation. On Sunday night, Cordy doesn’t want to leave this charming, seductive man, but she must play by her own rules.
On Monday, Cordy sits in a meeting at the ad agency that’s hired her as a freelancer, and her professional and personal worlds collide. Turns out agency owner Jack Cormier looks just as good in the boardroom as he did in the bedroom. Forced to work together, Cordy and Jack can’t ignore the chemistry that crackles between them, or the deeper feelings that have developed. But secrets and scars from their pasts may prove too formidable, even for a love that’s as powerful as it is unexpected.
Sometimes things aren’t what they seem, but it seemed to Cordy that indeed, there was a man in a tuxedo riding down the chairlift in Aspen. And he was probably drunk, which meant she wanted nothing to do with him.
It was exactly six-thirty-two a.m. on May 16, four hours before the lifts opened. She stood there, panting and staring. He was floating toward her, one arm slung along the back of the chair and a foot, also in formal wear, perched on the seat. The bands of his unfurled bow tie fluttered in the breeze.
My first morning in Aspen and already there’s a guy in a tuxedo. Talk about a town living up to the hype. The app on her phone beeped, telling her she’d logged five miles and could begin her cool-down. After this run, she would officially begin her part-work, part-leisure long weekend. She shook her head and started across the black-diamond run, which without snow was steep but hardly treacherous. As usual, she imagined how Marcas, her horse, would handle it—her dressage horse wasn’t the world’s best trail horse, but she still wished he were here with her. It would be fun to explore the mountains from his back. Maybe she’d have him shipped to Colorado, if she ended up staying longer than a few weeks.
“Damn!” the man said, bringing Cordy back to the present. What, you just realized you were riding a ski lift the wrong way? Cordy thought as she kept walking. She looked up the hill in time to see a silver cylinder hit the grass. It bounced and tumbled down the ski slope, winking in the sun. Remarkably, it stopped short, wedging itself between two small nearby boulders with a muffled metallic clink.
“Excuse me, darlin’,” yelled the man.
Darlin’? Cordy looked up. She was not this man’s darlin’, but she was the only one around.
“It seems my shaker and I have parted company. Could I trouble you to fetch it for me?”
He had a Southern accent. “Why do you have a martini shaker?”
“I was making martinis.”
Silly me. “On a ski lift?” He was passing overhead so she had to crane her neck to see him.
“Last evening. If you could just recover it, I’d be eternally grateful.” He half-turned to face her as he glided by.
“Where were you making martinis?”
“Top of the mountain.”
“For mountain goats?”
She thought he grinned. “Will you please get it for me? It has great sentimental value.”
She had to yell pretty loud now. “Then why’d you drop it?”
“Could you bring it to the hotel bar?”
He shouted something, but she couldn’t make it out. What an idiot, to drop a martini shaker. What an idiot to have a martini shaker on a chair lift. Still, it was an interesting turn of events, and a good omen for this new chapter in her life. Quirky. Not exciting, but unusual. She made her way down the slope and plucked the shaker from the boulders. It was dimpled from its flight, but she could make out the engraved initials JCL.
Who are you, JCL? “Guess I’ll fi nd out later today,” she muttered. “If he isn’t too drunk to remember.”
She looked down the mountain and saw that the man had neglected to jump off the lift and was headed back up.
Wow. He’s super drunk. She didn’t particularly want to have another shouted conversation, so she jogged into the trees, out of earshot. Still, she heard his voice.
“Take care of that shaker, darlin’!”
Cordy couldn’t remember if she’d ever been to a restaurant bar as it opened. It made her feel so . . . pathetic. Occasionally she’d lingered over a late brunch and been around when the dinner service began. But this? Nah.
It wasn’t every day you had to return a martini shaker to a man who shouted to you from a ski lift. A handsome man. Scratch that—a handsome drunk. He might not even make it here. She’d have a cocktail and if he didn’t show by the time she’d finished, she’d head back to her room, because she had better things to do—those notes on the Pinnacle Resort weren’t going to write themselves.
Setting the shaker on the bar, she picked up the cocktail menu. The thirtysomething bartender materialized before her, a dime-sized portion of a darkgreen tattoo peeking above his starched white collar. His light-brown hair kept to itself, a disciplined wavy mass Cordy found appealing. He angled his head and indicated the shaker.
“We’re a full-service resort. We have our own shakers, but if you insist . . .”
What? She followed his gaze. “Oh! I’m returning that.”
“So you’re the one.” He raised his chin.
“I didn’t steal it!” The bartender laughed and after a beat, Cordy felt her cheeks relax. “Oh. You’re kidding.” Lighten up, Cordy! “What I mean is, the owner is coming to get it.”
“Looks like a nice one. Would you like me to wipe it off for you?”
“No,” Cordy said quickly and too primly. She didn’t want to do that clumsy drunk guy any favors because she felt put-upon as it was. It was her own fault—no one forced her to retrieve the shaker—but she resented him all the same. “It’s fine as is.” She was waiting for a stranger for whom she’d done a favor. She should feel good; instead, she felt . . . owed. May as well enjoy myself while I wait. And act like a “real” guest. With that in mind, she went for decadent and ordered a champagne cocktail. To counter her immediate guilt, she followed with a respectable and nutritious Cobb salad. She gazed at the entrance to the bar one more time, noting the dark-wood backdrop and the paintings and fabrics in the oranges, reds, and purples of a mountain sunset. Then she pulled out her leather notebook and Cross pen and began to write her initial impressions of the Pinnacle Resort at Aspen.
Thirty minutes later, as her cocktail neared its logical conclusion (she was an admittedly slow drinker) and her salad was gone, Cordy had mellowed. A smattering of other customers had come in, which Cordy calculated was average for fi ve o’clock on a Friday in the off-season.
The off-season. Her favorite phrase because it had given her a dream career that allowed her to make a good living, own and show a horse, and travel around the world. She had become a go-to professional for how to make more money in the off-season. She could look at a resort, no matter where it was, and come up with ways to make hay when the sun didn’t shine, as it were. For Cordy, it was akin to taking a meh horse and making it a wow horse. She used to think anyone could see the off-season potential in a resort, but she accepted that she had a knack, though she was still reluctant to believe the hype heaped on her by happy clients. After working for a company that ran several resorts around the world, she went out on her own. Pinnacle was her first project as an independent contractor, but the winter resort wasn’t her client. A small Aspen ad agency that was trying to impress Pinnacle had hired her to overdeliver and wow them. She was a surprise bonus, and her recommendation could be the tipping point.
Or that’s what the agency was banking on. She thought they were overly optimistic, but they were paying her well, so she’d give them their money’s worth.
She had already completed a page of bullet points after being at Pinnacle for less than twenty-four hours. Not bad.
Was someone playing a piano? As Cordy looked around, a lock of shiny wheat-colored hair fell in front of her face. As she shoved it behind her ear, she saw a fresh champagne cocktail in front of her. “Excuse me,” she called to the bartender, who rushed over. “I didn’t order this.”
“It’s on the house, madam.” Did management know why she was here and was trying to impress her? As though she were a secret shopper or something? “Really? Why?”
“A gentleman came by and bought you a drink.”
“That’s impossible. I don’t know anyone here.”
“Begging your pardon, but that’s what happened.”
“Who was it?”
“He didn’t say,” the bartender replied as he wiped the bar.
“Where is he? I ought to thank him.”
“What did he look like?”
The bartender filled his cheeks with air and puffed it out. “Dark hair. A little taller than me.” He shrugged in defeat.
That didn’t help. If it was the martini guy, surely he would have taken the shaker.
The bartender spoke. “I’d say you have a secret admirer.”
“Right.” She said this merely to confirm she’d heard him because her attention was back on the music. What is that song? I know that song. And where is the piano?
Oh no. No. No no no no no.
“Excuse me, again,” Cordy said. “But where’s the piano?” She struggled to sound polite and not distressed.
“Just behind that tree,” he said, nodding toward an impressively leafy plant in the middle of the room that stretched to the ceiling. Cordy threw back a mouthful of her complimentary drink, dabbed her lips with her napkin, and took a breath before striding to the hidden instrument.
The man’s hands were sure and efficient as they transformed the keys into a gorgeous melody. Playing was muscle memory for him; that much was obvious. He rocked gently to the rhythm as though in a trance, oblivious to her or even that he was in the middle of a restaurant. If she weren’t in such a strange mood, she would have appreciated his talent and artistry. But the only thing she wanted to do was stop him.
“Excuse me,” she said.
She stared for a moment, willing him to look at her. The mental energy she expended could have bent several spoons, possibly a spatula. Or a shovel. He kept going, damn him. “Excuse me!” she said, louder this time.
He looked at her. Mildly. And literally didn’t miss a beat.
She was pretty sure it was the martini shaker guy. Of course. Because this was inconvenient, too. Maybe he didn’t recognize her. After all, he’d been flying overhead and three sheets to the wind when they’d met more than ten hours earlier. She sighed, flicked her hands at him, and said, “Could you maybe skip over this song and play something else?”
He shook his head and a few strands of pin-straight brown hair flopped into his eyes. “I’m sorry; I can’t hear you. I’m playing the piano.”
God. She spoke louder. “Yes, I know. I was wondering if you could play a different song?” He continued playing all those damned notes she hated, while conversing—of course he was—he was a professional, what did she expect? It wasn’t even multitasking for him, it was his job to chat up diners while playing. “This is a great song. Cole Porter. What do you have against Cole Porter?”
“This is part of my warm-up. I always play ‘So In Love.’ ”
It seemed he was embellishing the tune just to annoy her. The golden buzz from her vintage cocktail had turned on her and was making her grumpy. He continued, “Have you ever heard the words? They’re beautiful.” Then, to add musical insult to emotional injury, he started over and sang softly, so only she could hear. Her own private concert from hell.
His voice was as smooth as a premium liqueur and his accent—Southern and lyrical—disappeared. Still, hearing a declaration of a searing love come out of this man’s mouth only made her feel terrible. What did Cole Porter know? This kind of love doesn’t exist except in songs. I should know. Her throat ached, her cheeks heated and, lo and behold, she was about to cry. This wasn’t going to happen. She clamped down on her unacceptable emotional response, leaned toward him, and said, “Please.” “I’ll finish—”
She blurted, “I’ll give you a hundred dollars to stop.”
He kept playing. “You abhor it that much?”
She rolled her eyes. “A hundred bucks to do less. Come on.”
“Deal.” He finished with a flourish, held out his hand with its long, strong fingers, and raised his eyebrows at her.
“I don’t have that much cash on me.” She folded her arms under her breasts.
“You should have thought of that before you bribed me to stop.”
“I’ll leave it with the bartender.”
“George? He’s a confirmed kleptomaniac. I’ll never see a red cent.”
“I’ll leave you a check, then.”
“I’m sorry, darlin’, but traditionally speaking, bribes are cash only.” He whispered, “You don’t want it to be traced.”
“It’s not a bribe. I made it worth your while to stop playing. Think of it as a tip.”
“Pourboires are usually given as an expression of appreciation.”
“Tips. Why did you want me to stop? That was a whole lot of hatred aimed at poor Mr. Porter’s classic.”
Cordy sniffed and looked at the far wall over Martini Boy’s head. “I’d rather not say.”
“All that hostility can’t be good for you. Why don’t we discuss it over a . . . champagne cocktail?”
She knew her face betrayed her—her eyes widened, her eyebrows shot up, and her mouth opened a little more than usual. There was a reason she wasn’t a professional poker player or counterintelligence operative.
“No. Thank you. I should go.”
He tsked and shook his head. “I would’ve never taken you for a welsher.”
“I’m not—Don’t worry, you’ll get your money.”
His full lips kicked up at the corners, making him more appealing than she cared to admit. It was the
kind of appealing that made her want to stick around.
“As I see it, you owe me a hundred dollars and my martini shaker. Which I thank you for returning, by the way. It’s another reason I need to buy you a drink. In fact, I hardly think a drink’s enough—after all, that shaker is very important to me. I believe I owe you at least a dinner. Would you do me the honor of having dinner with me this evening, Miss . . . ? It is Miss, correct?” He didn’t need to know her name or her marital status. Not with that appealing smile chipping away at her defenses. “That’s very generous of you, but I don’t know you and you don’t know me. We don’t have to be friends. I’m sure you have plenty of friends. I’ll give you your hundred dollars, you can take your shaker—it’s right there on the bar, safe and sound—and we’ll go our separate ways. It’s not necessary to have dinner. It’s not necessary to have drinks or coffee or . . . anything. We had an encounter, then a business transaction, and that’s all. Besides, you can’t leave your shift—as you pointed out, you only just started playing, and the cocktail crowd is going to want their Gershwin as a backdrop for their scintillating conversations.”
She looked at the top of the upright. “Hey, where’s your brandy snifter? You’re good. A guy like you could make a lot of . . . pourboires.” She gazed at his face just in time to see it brighten. He didn’t smile, but his lips twitched and his eyes lighted. She was on a roll and it felt good. “After you’re done with your Harry Connick, Jr. stint, surely you have a few martinis to make, don’t you? Or do you only bartend on top of the mountain with your friends the goats?”
He swiveled on the piano bench to face her.
“Honey, your drink’s getting warm, and that’s a tragedy.” He stood. He was taller than she’d predicted. He had six inches on her, easy. She didn’t like that she had to look up to him now, after getting to look down at him this hole time. “Let’s go rescue that drink,” he said, and turned her with a finger on her shoulder. That finger then breezed the small of her back, propelling her toward the bar. “And careful about speaking ill of mountain goats,” he said as they walked. “They’re integral to the ecosystem here, they please the tourists, and they’re remarkably rugged, graceful, nimble creatures.” He pulled out her barstool for her. Cordy thought about dismissing his gesture, but decided to finish her cocktail. He amused her, and that was worth a few more minutes of her time. “I didn’t say anything bad about goats. I called them your friends. What does that say about you?” Plus he was easy on her eyes. He had great hair—the dark brown of a horse’s deep bay coat, and glossy—with regular features, a nose straight and assertive as a dressage whip, wide, dark eyes, full lips…A woman could do worse. He was elegant, yes, but oh-so-unavoidably masculine. A dangerous combination, but perfect for temporary scenery at a bar in a ski resort in Aspen.
She sat. He stood. He sipped her drink. “Hey!” she said.
“Just as I feared. Too warm.” He beckoned the bartender.
“George, the lady is in dire need of another champagne cocktail, if you will. This one is tepid. And I’ll have one as well.”
“It was fine,” Cordy said.
“No, it wasn’t. There’s nothing worse than warm champagne.”
“I can think of something worse.”
He sat, then looked at her, and his gaze was so focused, she felt there must be a red laser dot on her nose. Her pulse actually kicked up a notch. “And, pray tell, what would that be?” This had to be what an impala felt like when it knew it couldn’t outrun the lion.
“Come now, was I really that bad?”
“You weren’t exactly cooperative. You could’ve stopped when I asked the first time.”
“I assure you, under the right circumstances, with the right woman, I can be the very picture of cooperation.”
Cordy shifted on her barstool. Where was George with her cocktail? And why was Martini Boy with her and not at the piano? Normally she wouldn’t have asked, but her experience with him had been anything but normal. “Don’t you need to get back to the piano? People are starting to fidget.”
“They’ll manage,” he said, looking around the room. “Would you be so kind as to hand me my shaker? I’d like to inspect it for damage.”
Cordy handed it to him and noted his clean, flat, broad nails rounding out his capable hands. She also felt their fingers touch for a fraction of a second.
“Yeah, so, about that. What was up with that?”
“What was up with what?”
“You dropping it. If it means so much to you, shouldn’t you have been more careful?”
“People drop things all the time,” he said, turning the shaker as he examined it. “It’s an international habit.”
“Clumsy people drop things. You play the piano like a dream, so I’m guessing you’re not usually clumsy. All that hand-eye coordination and everything.”
“You give me an immense amount of credit. I hear Van Cliburn had an embarrassing and expensive habit of dropping crystal.”
Who was this guy who talked like he’d just stepped out of 1920? Cordy was slightly surprised he was in color and not black-and-white like an old movie. Nobody really talked like this. He was putting on an act. He had to be. Well, two could play at this game. She was going to say something out of character. Their drinks arrived and Cordy took a good long sip. She furloughed her internal editor, the one who kept her scrupulously polite, then looked at him.
“Why were you in a tux riding the ski lift the wrong way and carrying a martini shaker at six thirty in the morning?”
He grinned and took a few swallows of the water George had given them with the drinks, making her wait. He set the glass down and licked his lips. “Earlier in the evening, I attended a party that demanded formal wear.”
“What kind of party?”
“A formal one.”
She beetled her brows at him. “It went on until sunrise? At your age? Were the cops involved? You can tell me. After all, it’s not like we’ll see each other again.”
“Now that would be a tragedy of epic proportions.”
“Trust me, it’ll be fine.”
“Was it a wedding? Which would be unusual on a Thursday, but not unheard of.”
“Graduation? Bar mitzvah? Barn raising?”
“You’re not going to guess the occasion. Have you considered the possibility that I might just enjoy dressing up?”
“Oh!” Was this code? Was he telling her he was gay? Which would be great, because they could pal around and she wouldn’t have to worry about getting involved. She would never have guessed, but these days, with straight metrosexuals around every corner, her gaydar was unreliable.
“Oh?” he asked.
She shrugged. “Oh.”
“What does ‘oh’ mean?”
“ ‘Oh’ means ‘oh.’ ” She couldn’t tell him what she was thinking. Even her absent editor returned to keep her silent.
“ ‘Oh’ means ‘oh,’ huh? All right, then. Since you were so kind as to return my shaker, I’m not going to press you for an answer.”
“Now we’re even,” Cordy said, feeling positively cocky. “You didn’t answer my question and I didn’t answer yours. Let’s just enjoy our drinks, okay?”
“Absolutely. Whatever you prefer.” He tipped his flute to clink with hers, sipped, then paused. “Hmm.”
“What?” she asked.
“Nothing. Just hmm.”
“You won’t tell me what ‘oh’ means, but you expect me to tell you what ‘hmm’ means?”
Cordy went for the chink in his armor. “It would be the gentlemanly thing to do.”
“If that’s what you think. I was thinking how it’s curious that a woman such as yourself is here alone.”
“What makes you think I’m alone?”
“That would be because you are.”
“You’re in a resort town, at a resort. Most guests come with at least one other person. In your case, I would expect you to be here with a man. A significant other of some sort. Spouse, boyfriend, fiancé—”
“Don’t say that word.”
“Yes. Just . . . don’t. Or I’ll take that shaker and throw it off a cliff.” Cordy smoothed her hair behind her ear and stared at the bubbles zipping to the surface of her drink. Why did he have to say that?
“I promise not to say ‘fiancé’ anymore. If you tell me why I can’t.”
She felt like Martini Boy was squeezing her windpipe.
“I can’t. Okay? It’s a . . . thing.” The words choked out. He must’ve noticed because he nodded and didn’t argue. She wished she was one of those people who could laugh and make light of it, but in this case, she couldn’t. “Excuse me for a moment. I’ll be right back.” She reached under the bar to snag her purse from the hook. Purse hooks under bars were a godsend. More points for Pinnacle. Martini Boy stood. More points for Martini Boy.
“Will you be back?” he asked, and sounded concerned.
She slid off the stool. “Yes. I need to use the restroom.”
By “use” she meant “regain my composure, then figure out what I want to do next and if it involves you.”