From The Top
BOOK 2 in the Blue Spruce Lodge
Their hot New Year’s Eve wasn’t supposed to have consequences…
Fiercely independent after a difficult childhood, Ilke Lunquist devotes herself to one thing: skiing. She’s on the cusp of gold when an unexpected pregnancy throws her future into chaos.
Nathaniel Hart takes on the daunting project of restoring Whiskey Jack Ski Resort to be close to his young son, but with one failed marriage behind him, he avoids serious relationships.
They might be virtual strangers with only a baby in common, but Nate is determined to be part of his child’s life. Ilke didn’t become a champion by ever backing down from a challenge, especially not one where her child’s happiness and her own heart are on the line. When tragedy strikes, heartbreak draws them closer together. Nate discovers he’s more than ready for a bigger family and maybe, just maybe, Ilke will find the home that has eluded her all her life.
“I’m not giving up racing.”
— Ilke, From The Top
When I began writing On The Edge, I realized that as much as Rolf might have opinions on the way his new ski hill should look and run, he would have to have a project manager, someone with a technical mind and a willingness to wade through the building permits and other details that would put Rolf over the edge.
Nathaniel showed up about the time that Glory was flown out to see Blue Spruce Lodge for the first time. Glory eyeballs him as a potential hero, then realizes he thinks she’s hitting on her. Oops. But I started thinking of him as a potential hero, too. One whom I gave an adorably soft side to when I decided he had a three-year-old son, Aiden.
Later in that first book, Ilke showed up as ‘the other woman.’ I try to avoid cliche characters and started thinking about how she had come to Blue Spruce Lodge and why. It wasn’t because she has designs on Rolf. In fact, she doesn’t look to any man to advance her interests. She’s independent to a fault.
Which makes her pretty conflicted when she gets pregnant and is forced to quit skiing. As for Nate, he holds himself to ridiculous standards and getting a woman pregnant is a pretty big misstep. Both of these two were at the top of their game and now they’re tumbling into an abyss. I loved helping them find their way out of it.
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From The Top
Secretly, deep down, Ilke Lundquist was a romantic.
Not that she could afford to be. She had tried at every turn to curtail it and, God knows, the world had certainly done its best to beat that streak out of her. She possessed classic Nordic beauty, which should have been an asset, but in reality, it meant she was treated like a dumb blonde or as if she was easy—most often both. Women in sports were taken almost as seriously as pigtails on a goat, especially when they were pretty, and her mother’s example of happily ever after was an abomination of the phrase.
Out of self-preservation, Ilke had put away childish dreams that included knights on white chargers. She had pushed herself to become resourceful, disciplined, and logical. A realist. A cold bitch, some called her, which didn’t bother her. Much. She made sure no one knew it bothered her. Besides, it meant less was expected of her and it allowed her to focus on her goals. The one dream she did allow herself to have.
And yes, living that way was lonely as hell, but she didn’t want to need anyone. That was her mother’s way—financially dependent, afraid to be alone, seeing what she wanted to see so she could believe she had everything.
Every woman’s marrow-deep fear was to turn out like her mother so, no. Ilke wasn’t going to be that. She allotted herself one passion, one crazy aspiration that crowded out everything else. The podium was her happily ever after. All the moves she made were aimed at standing there. If an action didn’t serve that dream, it didn’t need to be taken.
So why was she overcome by a swell of hot emotion when she arrived at Blue Spruce Lodge? Not misery at this detour, either. Her eyes stung with something like homecoming. She was here. She hadn’t cried in years, even in the last few weeks as her life crashed and spilled itself in pieces across media outlets around the world.
She turned off the engine of her rented SUV, squeezing the wheel as she tamped down on the swell of anxiety that lurked beneath her carefully restrained surface.
Maybe the way the feathery flakes swirled rather than fell was affecting her. If she did have a home, that’s where it was—in the snow. Not inside some throwback lodge glowing like a scene in a child’s snow globe.
She leaned forward, taking in the low, flat ceiling of dull gray and what looked like a cut-out of snow-covered peaks forming a backdrop behind the lodge’s blue roof. Floodlights tucked into the landscape at the front of the building cast pale funnels of light upward, bathing the laden branches of the shrubs in hints of gold, warming the creamy daffodil-color of the building’s walls. With the amber glow through the yellowed glass on either side of the door, the lodge was a beacon of welcome on this gloomy March morning.
Not much had changed since she’d been here at the turn of the year, but it was significantly improved from the eyesore she’d seen last July. At that time, she had privately wondered what the Johanssons were thinking.
For decades, this had been a family-run lodge on the Whiskey Jack ski hill. The resort was off the beaten track and only had a handful of day buildings and a chalet for overnighters. Oskar Johansson, founder of Wikinger Sports, had seen a diamond in the rough and bought it to develop as a training facility for his sons.
That had been fifteen years ago and an avalanche had promptly wiped out everything except this old lodge, which had been shuttered until last year.
That was when Rolf and Trigg Johansson took up the challenge of resurrecting the resort. They had the pockets, the passion, and the capacity to build a world-class winter destination from near-scratch, but they had left the refurbishing of the only on-site accommodation in the hands of an ex-professor from Seattle and his romance author daughter, Glory.
Progress was being made, Ilke supposed. She folded her hands on the wheel, noting that since last summer, all the broken uprights in the exterior balcony had been repaired. The rails and shutters had been painted Bavarian-blue to match the roof. With the muted light turning all the colors mellow and quaint, Blue Spruce Lodge looked like an enchanted place straight from a fairy tale.
But fairy tales weren’t real. She knew that better than ever now. The ones where children were eaten? Those were legit. In the last few weeks, her hopes and dreams had been spat out like broken bones and wasted years, completely without regard.
Just when she had begun to believe she was done with rundown chalets and clawing her way into better circumstances, here she was all over again.
Because of one stupid night.
It was supposed to be a virus. That’s what she had told herself, trying to explain why she was sluggish and nauseated and forgetful. That’s why she had had so many slow starts and fudged a gate, getting herself disqualified from one event. Once she had started second-guessing herself, the whole thing had gone to hell and her finish times had sucked balls.
This was supposed to be her year. Her arrival on the podium.
Instead, she’d come away fifth and seventh and nineteenth. They’d scratched her from a team event because she’d been performing so poorly.
How was she pregnant? How? She barely even had sex. People whispered that she was a closet lesbian, she turned men down so consistently.
Yet the stars had aligned two months ago. She had impulsively shared her bed with a man who had—apparently—worn a faulty condom while the prescription she’d started as a travel precaution had rendered her birth control patch useless.
She had fallen twice since then. Not bad falls, but she could have miscarried any time over the last weeks, maybe without even knowing she was pregnant. Instead, she’d hung on to that baby and embarrassed herself in front of the world, lost the backers who would have given her a full ride if she had medaled—and soon, the entire Alpine racing world would know why she had choked.
Still time to end it, she kept thinking, but what was the point? This baby had already cost her the most important four years of her life.
And she wanted to have it, which didn’t make sense to her at all. This wasn’t a book where everything worked out in the end. It was real life. From the day she had become sexually active, she had always believed she would terminate an unplanned pregnancy. Her goals were too important, her trajectory impossible to interrupt. Not to mention there was no such thing as a man good enough with whom to procreate.
Even so, after the team doctor had quizzed her with routine questions and she had assured him that, no, she couldn’t be pregnant, she had taken a test on the sly. She had then skipped the closing ceremonies, too chagrined by her failure, too astounded she was expecting, to stay in Korea. She hadn’t even considered going to see her mother in New Zealand, which was far closer than Stockholm or the Montana Rockies.
No, she had bolted on the first available flight, taking her gear back to Sweden and leaving it in storage with the club that would likely expel her for someone who knew how to ski. Then she had declined to renew the lease on her furnished apartment, since her income was dropping like a barometer before a hurricane.
In a move that had truly gutted her, she had flushed her season down the toilet by pulling out of the World Cup finals, to which she’d been invited. Until the games, her point standings had put her in a contender’s position for overall champion. If she had done what she was supposed to do in Korea, she would have pulled herself into the lead in the rankings and finished the season with precious medals around her neck and a crystal globe in her hands.
Instead, she had to set all of that aside and talk to the father of her baby. That was the only decision she had been able to make.
Two days and three stopovers later, she felt like hell and not just from the travel. She had woken with morning sickness after a restless night in a cheap motel in Kalispell. She was feeling trapped in a way she hadn’t felt in a long, long time and hated it.
At least she was surrounded by her true friends now. Tall, jagged peaks and clean, pure snow. Snow was nature’s miracle, whitewashing imperfections and providing a clean start to a new day. Watching it calmed her. It always did. She only wished she could snap on her skis and lose herself in its glittering powder.
A streaking pang of loss hit her as she realized she wouldn’t be allowed that vital meditation for a year.
She worked her hands on the steering wheel, trying to believe gold would be hers in another four years—when she would be pushing thirty and the upstart eighteen-year-olds with uninjured knees who had surpassed her this year would be reaching the top of their game.
What was she doing here?
Every single day she battled toward the top, training through hardship, qualifying, beating her last time and beating her competitors. Winning this race, then going after the next one. She couldn’t put her conditioning on hold for a year. She would lose too much ground.
But what was her alternative? Fly to Queenstown and ask her mother for help?
That thought was so repulsive, she threw herself out of the car to get away from it. Not bothering with her luggage, she turned up the collar on her insulated jacket, tucked her chin against the wind and kicked her knee-high boots through the inches of snow that had accumulated since the last time the lot had been cleared.
How was this place keeping the lights on? There were only two snow-covered vehicles in the far corner of the lot.
Would they even give her a room? She planned to prevail on Vivien, a friend of her mother’s, kind of. Maybe she was Ilke’s friend, not that Ilke encouraged close relationships, but Vivien had reached out once, a long time ago, when Ilke’s mother had been turning a blind eye.
Ilke had been too afraid to let Vivien interfere at the time, but a thread of something had remained between them. Trust? She wasn’t sure what it was, only that each time she crossed paths with the older woman, Vivien acted happy to see her. She made Ilke feel seen and valued. Even though Vivien was Vivien. She was entitled and demanding and overbearing. Not in a hurtful way. She simply made assumptions that she would get what she wanted and always did.
Somehow Vivien had talked Ilke into bringing her here last summer, so Vivien could see what her ‘boys’ were up to. Then she had invited Ilke to join a heli-ski trip over the new year. Ilke didn’t know why Vivien was so nice to her, but Ilke was a slut for powder so she had accepted.
Was Vivien even back from Korea? She’d been there to watch her son, Trigg, win a hat-trick of gold in his snowboard events along with two silvers. The bastard. Must be nice not to worry about a stowaway taking up residence in your uterus, throwing off not just your stamina and coordination, but your entire life.
What if it wasn’t even open? The ski hill didn’t have any chairlifts yet and only a quarter of the rooms at the lodge had been guest-ready when she’d been here in January. Maybe it had gone belly-up?
The door opened when she pulled.
A cheerful gas fireplace with gorgeous stonework separated the lobby from the adjacent lounge. The mantel held a sweet cuckoo clock and comfortable-looking chairs were arranged to face the flames, but they were empty.
Ilke paused to take in the staircase that rose on her right, fully restored with polished woodgrain and new carpet in a rich red with gold accents. A sparkling chandelier hung over it. On the far side of the lobby, paneled-glass doors formed a wall that closed off the dining room.
She crossed to peek through.
Her heart pounded the way it did when she was waiting for her name to be called before a race, but the dining room was empty. He wasn’t there. No tall frame with brawny shoulders. No lean face with smooth, brown skin, dark straight brows, and hair so closely trimmed it was more of a black cap, matching the neatly shaved stubble that framed his strong jaw. His irises were dark brown and somber, his lashes so ridiculously long, his eyes bordered on pretty. His mouth… If she were the type to objectify a man, she would call his mouth erotic. That night, she had thought she could feast on him for the rest of her life.
Of course, her ovaries had been waking up from hibernation, starving and sending her libido on the hunt. Biology was a cruel mistress. Witness how her nerves were firing on all cylinders when she wasn’t planning for this to be a scene. Her emotions were still firmly packed in the suitcase she’d left in her rental. She was here to inform and plot a way forward. It would be very civilized.
Pragmatic and dispassionate, even.
Seriously, where was everybody? This was creepy.
Glancing into the lounge behind the fireplace, she found it empty, too. There wasn’t anyone tending the bar or drinking at it.
Nate was at the base, she supposed, working. It was only ten o’clock in the morning.
Her palms were clammy and she shoved them into her pockets.
This was eerie, finding the place so quiet when it had been a hive the other two times, especially on New Year’s Eve. With the arrival of winter, all the activity had moved inside. There’d been a cute brunette who’d called herself the lodge’s manager at the reception desk. She wasn’t there today, however. No staff was visible.
Ilke pinched her lip, growing quite convinced they had either run out of money, or there was a carbon monoxide leak and her body would be found along with the rest.
She glanced at the bell on the reception desk, but didn’t press it. She looked down the hall that led toward the kitchen and a suite that Marvin, the owner, lived in. Halfway along was his office.
Starting down that way, she paused as she neared the cracked door, hearing voices as she came alongside it.
“—going to kill him. In fact, you can tell him he can do this fucking job himself, since it’s his fault she quit. I don’t need this shit! What am I supposed to do now?”
That sounded like Glory, Marvin’s daughter.
Ilke wavered between knocking and going back to tap the bell.
“You know my feelings on this, schatzi.”
That was Rolf, Vivien’s stepson and owner of Whiskey Jack Resort, President of Wikinger Sports and self-appointed king of all he surveyed.
His tone suggested disinterest. What did Glory even see in him? Beyond the physical, of course. Ilke couldn’t fault Glory’s taste since she’d had a brief fling with Rolf herself a few years ago. When Ilke did have sex, it tended to be hit and run so her thing with Rolf hadn’t lasted more than an hour from lobby to shower. Nate had been an exceptional—pun intended—all-nighter.
But still a one-off. She didn’t allow herself to expect anything from her affairs and good thing, because nothing ever came of them.
“You promised you would intervene if this happened.” Glory sounded really bitter. “What the fuck? Why couldn’t he keep it in his pants?”
“I’ll speak to Vivien.” So flat and unaffected. “Ask her to help your father find someone else.”
“Oh, it’ll be three weeks before this gets sorted out and we both know what I’ll be doing all that time. I didn’t move back here to run this place. Your fucking brother’s unstoppable dick is ruining my life and you don’t care.”
A thick pause where Ilke could imagine one of Rolf’s dead-eyed looks dissecting Glory into tiny pieces for daring to get strident with him.
“Any other day I would give you the fight you’re begging for,” Rolf said in a voice that was calm and—was she crazy? Did he sound gentle? Tender? “Today you get a free pass to blame me for Trigg’s dick and Vivien hiring a woman who couldn’t stay off it and your father’s inability to solve his own problems. If you want to stay here and work, I’ll stand here and listen to how much you resent it.”
Another loaded silence, then Glory spoke again, voice choked. “If I don’t yell, I’ll cry.”
“She’s not even my mom.”
“I hate funerals.”
“I can’t. I’ll ruin my makeup.” She sniffed. “We should go or we’ll be late.”
A resigned feminine sigh and the scuff of footsteps.
Ilke smoothly retreated to the desk in time to watch the door swing inward.
Glory emerged, Rolf behind her. He gently pulled her around to face him and they exchanged a brief make-up kiss. They were dressed for a service, Rolf in a dark suit, Glory in a black dress and heels. He wasn’t as lean as he’d been when he’d been racing and waving flags on podiums, but his increased bulk was all muscle. He was ruggedly handsome and a gorgeous foil for Glory’s slender, redheaded femininity.
Their somber expressions flickered into surprise as they noticed her. Rolf’s expression darkened and his hand went to Glory’s waist, drawing her closer to his side.
Ilke wanted to smirk at how protective he was, but she felt a weird pang instead. She doubted he felt any guilt for their hookup. She never gave more than a passing thought to the time they’d collided body parts, but now he and Glory were a thing, he betrayed that caution whenever he saw her, wary of their extremely brief history hurting his beloved fiancée.
The idea she had designs on him was laughable, but she found his concern for Glory endearing. Something to envy even, which was odd since Glory wasn’t someone she aspired to be, especially if she had a man dominating her life. Ilke admired her, though. She was funny and had a cool side job. She also didn’t take shit from a man who didn’t seem to possess a human bone in his body.
Rolf’s reaction to Ilke’s coming here had been dead last on her list of worries when she had booked her flight, but she belatedly realized he could become a problem if he felt his relationship with Glory was threatened.
“Ilke.” Glory frowned in confusion.
“Shouldn’t you be in Norway?” Rolf asked.
You could take the racer off the circuit, but you couldn’t take the schedule out of his head. She had to admire his economy, too. He managed to scold her for Korea while trying to get rid of her in five short words. True precision. That’s why he was a champion, she supposed.
“I believe Vivien will have a room for me.” She deliberately made it sound as though she was here at Vivien’s invitation when she hadn’t even told her she was coming. “Is—” She had forgotten the manager’s name and realized that’s who had probably fallen victim to Trigg’s relentless libido. “Shall I wait in the lounge for Vivien?”
“We’re locking up for a funeral.” Rolf’s gaze told her to wait in her car, preferably in Billings.
Ilke showed no reaction, even though his hostility stung. Even though an anxious sweat rose on the back of her neck. She didn’t have anywhere else to go.
“We don’t have any finished rooms available,” Glory warned. “Rolf has a heli-tour group coming in late tonight. Paula’s up there now, prepping for them.” She tapped into the computer. “Your contractors are in these three, aren’t they?” She pointed at the screen while glancing at Rolf.
“Oh, screw it,” Glory muttered and pushed the mouse away. “I’ll register you when I get back. We’re already late. Here.” She grabbed a key from behind the desk. “I think that room’s habitable. If not, ask Paula to find you one that is. Oh, the sign for the door.” Glory spun and hurried back to the office.
“Who—?” Ilke started to ask about the funeral.
“Why are you here?” Rolf asked, blunt and confrontational enough she had to fight taking a step back.
Ilke licked her lips. Fortunately, Glory came back with a piece of paper and moved to pull a piece of tape off the dispenser, which gave a little screech as she did.
“We’ll be in Haven most of the day, but Dad and Vivien are coming back right after the service. Suzanne Adams passed away. Do you remember her?”
“I don’t. I’m sorry.”
“She owned the bistro in town. We’re friends with the family.” Glory’s face darkened as she moved to stick the sign on the door and turn the lock. Her shoulders lifted and fell as she took a bracing breath before she came back to Rolf. “Oh, do you need to go out for your luggage? Can you lock up when you come back in?”
Rolf set his arm across Glory’s back and they moved down the hall, passed the kitchen where there was a back exit to the staff parking lot.
Ilke hated when a man threw his arm around her. It always felt very possessive and controlling to her. She had loathed it since she’d been fourteen and had had to pry herself out from under her stepfather’s thumb and the rest of his straying hands.
Glory wasn’t a teenager or a wilting violet like Ilke’s mother, though. Watching the pair, she thought Rolf’s hold seemed protective and supportive. Loving.
Not that she cared, she reminded herself, heading out into the snow. She didn’t want or need a man in her life. She was independent. Cold, tough. A pragmatic bitch.
Although, as she pulled her heavy case from the back of the SUV and carried it across the thickening snow, she had a worrisome thought that she might be hurting the baby with her exertion. It would be nice to have a man do things like this as her pregnancy progressed. And what about the coming months? She would burn through her savings. Why was that all on her when it had taken two to conceive this kid?
As she walked back into the hotel, and she was surrounded by silence, she told herself being alone was the way she preferred it.
Except she wasn’t alone. She was pregnant.
What was Nate going to say when she told him she wanted him to raise it so she could continue competing?
“You look like you’re running a day care out here.”
Nathaniel Hart glanced away from the four kids playing in the snow to Eden Adams. She had pulled on what had to be her father’s jacket since it swamped her and had the police crest on its shoulder. Her green pom-pom hat was already turning white from the short walk from the porch to the hillock where the kids were taking turns with plastic toboggans.
“The other dads said they would be right back.”
“And you fell for it?”
Nate had had his keys in his hand when he’d walked Aiden over to join his son’s preschool friends, but he didn’t say anything about the men who would rather drink beer out of the weather than spend time with their kids. He kept his opinions to himself as a rule, mostly because he had a superiority complex, according to his ex-wife. Which makes me better than those with an inferiority complex, had been his response, very much not to her great amusement.
The take-away had been to keep his trap shut over pointing out the rest of humanity’s failings. And the very fact he had an ex-wife scorched the perfectionist in him enough to instill some circumspection, if not actual humility.
“You would think they could PVR the game on a day like today.” Disgust replaced the grief that lined her expression, but only for a moment. She quickly found a smile for the children dressed in brightly colored snowsuits, hoods pulled tight around their faces, hands bound in waterproof mittens, feet clumsy in insulated boots.
“Auntie Eden, come slide with us.” That was Zuzu, named for her grandmother Suzanne, the woman whose loss had brought what looked like all of Haven to the community hall and now the Adams’s home.
“I’m still in my skirt, sweetie. See?” Eden pointed to where her knees were shaking in thick black nylons beneath the band of her black skirt and above the oversized green galoshes she had stepped into.
Aiden looked at Eden as if she’d run over his dog, then kicked the remains. “Please?” he asked with a blink, blink, blink of his long-lashed eyes. Poor kid had the same problem Nate did—lashes so long the snow stuck to them.
“Sweet Lord, how do you say no to that face?” Eden asked Nate in a beleaguered tone. “Next time, buddy. I promise.”
Nate had taken Aiden last night and this morning, which wasn’t his usual day, but Wanda was close with Eden’s sister and Nate hadn’t thought a funeral service was something their just-turned four-year-old needed to attend. Not if they could shield him from harsh reality a little longer.
He had only intended to stop by here long enough to express his condolences and hand off Aiden to Wanda, but he didn’t view spending time with his kid as a chore. Work tasks might be swirling in his brain as thick as this falling snow, but listening to children’s laughter went a long way on a day like today.
Maybe that’s why Eden had come out here, but he still said, “You don’t have to stand around in this.” It was cold and she was having a rough enough day. “I’m fine.”
“I needed a break.” She pushed her fists deeper into the jacket pockets. “You want to get a coffee, though?”
He had wondered sometimes if she was hitting on him, being so friendly all the time. It wasn’t pure conceit. He worked out, kept his clothes clean, and was paid well. In this town of limited prospects, being single and possessing all his teeth made him Haven’s most eligible bachelor. Even so, he had chalked up the impression to her naturally outgoing personality.
Yet here he was, fielding a legitimate invitation.
Weirdly, the image of a lithe blonde flashed into his brain along with the compulsion to say, I can’t. He hadn’t been in a monogamous relationship since his marriage and he was never going to see Ilke again, so why—?
“Oh, my God.” Eden dipped her head and covered her eyes. “I meant do you literally want to go inside and get yourself a coffee. You’ve been out here a while and I thought you might be cold. I wasn’t asking for a date.”
Okay, then. He scratched his cheek through his beard. “Dang. I’m always picking up bereaved women at funerals. No reason you should be the exception.”
That made her chuckle and he was glad. She looked like she needed a laugh.
Of course, now he should say something like, But if you do want to get a coffee sometime, give me a call.
She glanced up at him with a smile of anticipation as if she expected him to say it and would agree.
For some reason, the words stalled in his throat.
After a beat of silence, her mouth twitched philosophically.
Now he felt like he had rejected a woman who had enough going on she didn’t need a man turning up his nose at buying her a coffee.
“No, it’s fine. Honestly.”
“It’s the small-town thing,” he insisted on explaining, thinking he really shouldn’t be so fastidious. She was cute and funny. A genuinely nice person. “Not that you’re small-town. I know you’re not.” She was pretty worldly for this otherwise backwoods, white-bread town, but he saw her all the time. He bumped into her at the lodge if she came out to see Glory and they exchanged a few words at the preschool if he happened to pick up Aiden and she was getting her niece. “People know enough of my business as it is. I thought this kind of overlapping of lives was a made-up TV cliché until I moved here and started to live it. It makes me cautious about giving people things to talk about. That’s all.”
Having nowhere to hide in this town probably wouldn’t bother him so much if his life looked the way he had always planned, but it didn’t. The least Wanda could have done was stay in Sacramento where they would have had some anonymity, but no. She had pressed him to move here, where she could hang their laundry to air-dry in front of people they had to talk to every day.
“It chafes, I know. Why do you think I moved away soon as I finished high school and only came back kicking and screaming? ‘When are you going to get married? When are you going to have kids?’” she sing-songed.
Eden was giving him the look, though. The one that told him she was speculating on what kind of marriage he’d had if his ex had left him to shack up with another woman. Why had he followed them here?
“So you’re not going to remarry and have more kids?” she joked.
He snorted, but answered truthfully, thinking he might as well make his position crystal clear.
“If Wanda and I had stayed together, it would be different, but…” He shrugged. “My sister’s ex has kids with someone else and her current boyfriend has kids with his first wife… It gets complicated.” His sister’s situation wasn’t even contentious, just a juggling act and more drama than he wanted or needed in his own life. He was happy to keep his personal life neat and simple. Him and his son.
“Yeah, and if Wanda is thinking about having more kids—”
His tone was so sharp, it made all the kids stop and look.
Eden widened her eyes. “I didn’t mean— It was just something she said the other day. We were chatting when I was picking up Zuzu. Honestly, it sounded like a someday thing. Not like it was happening.”
“Yeah, well, she would have a problem making it happen, wouldn’t she?” The sperm count in Wanda’s girlfriend, Frankie, was zero.
He wouldn’t put it past Wanda to visit a bank, though.
“Nate.” Eden touched his arm. “I’m babbling about other people because I don’t want to think about my own life right now. Don’t take anything I say seriously.”
Too late. His temper was lit.
Not because he was holding out for a reconciliation, either. He was one hundred percent over his marriage, but he was one million percent protective of his son. Couldn’t Wanda keep one single thing stable for half a minute before forcing Aiden to adapt to new circumstances?
Before forcing Nate to do the same?
“I have to pee,” one of the little ones said, ruddy face all that was showing in the tightly drawn hood of a neon green snowsuit.
“I’ll take you in, sweetie.” Eden offered her hand. “And I’ll start some cocoa for everyone. One more slide each, then you all come in, okay?” she said to the kids, then glanced at Nate.
He nodded curtly. “I’ll bring them.”
He wouldn’t hang around, though. Wanda and Frankie were inside. He wasn’t ready to be civil to either of them if they were thinking about bringing another child into their broken family. No way. Not if he had any say in the matter.
Which he probably didn’t.
His name said in that particular baritone made Marvin Cormer feel like the literary Mr. Bennet every single time. He is the kind of man, indeed, to whom I should never dare refuse anything.
“Rolf.” Marvin smiled and handed his future son-in-law one of the floral arrangements from the back of his SUV. Marvin was late arriving at the Adams’s home, having hung back to help with gathering up the flowers and putting away chairs with the handful of volunteers at the community hall.
Rolf gave the spray of white roses and baby’s breath a perplexed look.
That wasn’t even the half of it. Marvin handed him the tripod that would hold the enormous wreath with a satin ribbon imprinted with a goodbye message. He and Glory had had the sickly scent of dying flowers in the house for two weeks before Glory had finally had a fit about it and threw them all out in one day. But how did one ask a freshly bereaved family if they’d prefer not to watch beautiful bouquets shrivel metaphorically, day-by-day. If Marvin had known how depressing it was, he would have sent all of their bouquets directly to a senior center or some other place where the living and unaffected could enjoy them.
“Lovely service,” he said, as he had a dozen times already. People didn’t know how to process something like this. Best to help them along with easy conversation. That was his specialty, after all. “Good to see the local florist does such a nice job. We can trust them with the wedding.”
“That’s what we need to discuss. If the lodge won’t be ready, tell me now. I’ll make other arrangements.” So blunt.
Was Glory out of her senses to be accepting this man? She had always been such a sensitive girl. Marvin couldn’t fathom how these two had ended up together.
But they had.
Like every other parent in history, he had to let go and watch her stand or fall—while doing everything he could to keep her standing.
“The lodge will be ready,” Marvin assured Rolf with a magnanimous smile.
“Your manager quit. Again.”
“She did,” Marvin confirmed, but left it at that. Rolf’s brother, Trigg, the little turd, was the reason women kept departing in various states of anger, disappointment, heartbreak, and disgust. Trigg was Marvin’s only ally in this endeavor with renovating Blue Spruce Lodge, however, and the brothers locked horns enough as it was. Marvin didn’t want to—as the kids said these days—throw Trigg under the bus.
“I’ll have a new manager hired long before July.” The calendar had just turned to March. Lots of time. “It won’t affect the renovations. Those are on schedule.”
“But it affects Glory.” Rolf tucked his chin in a man-to-man directness.
Marvin turned to close the back of his vehicle, hiding the sting that came from having this man, who had only come into Glory’s life a year ago, trying to protect his daughter from him.
“She’s upset today. This hits close to home.” Nevertheless, Marvin felt the creep of failure pressing into his bones. Somehow, over the last years, he had lost something in his daughter’s eyes. She loved him, but she didn’t believe in him. Dragging her into his dream of renovating and running an inn might have resulted in her finding the love of her life, but she didn’t think her father could make a go of Blue Spruce Lodge. Not really. Not in the long run.
Her lack of confidence in him hurt. Failing her on her wedding day was not something he would or could allow to happen.
“Everything will be fine,” he told Rolf. “You’ll see.”
“I’ll ask Vivien to take a more active role,” Rolf said. “Just to be sure.”
Ouch. It wasn’t as if he didn’t feel every day that Rolf was waiting for him to crash and burn so he could pick up the pieces and do things his way. Vivien was the thin edge of that wedge. She already behaved proprietarily enough: quick to order staff, playing lady of the manor when VIPs were in residence. Marvin didn’t need anyone taking him in hand, most especially a duchess of the Johansson realm.
Marvin was a pleaser, though. Always had been. That’s why it had taken him nearly sixty years to go after what he really wanted. He was here now, though. Blue Spruce Lodge was his, and, “I have everything under control.”
“She’s very organized. Always kept my father on track.”
Marvin smiled past his dismay at Rolf’s relentlessness.
“I’m sure she did. She’s a fine woman.” Too fine. She looked down on this entire venture. Since agreeing to plan the wedding, she hadn’t stopped complaining about the lack of resources in this small town. “But I can—”
“I’ll tell her to schedule a meeting.” Rolf talked right over him, nodded once to indicate the discussion was over, and carried the flowers inside.
Vivien had lived high and she had lived low. Rock bottom had been her foundation, growing up in poverty, moving around as her father went from job to job, drinking himself out of each hint of security with reckless abandon. At sixteen, with him in the drunk tank and her lacking even a high school graduation certificate, she had applied her pretty smile and pretty legs to every reputable business taking names, including the airfield on the outskirts of whichever town they had occupied at the time.
That stint making coffee between filing and running bank deposits had inspired her to become an airline hostess. Two years into that, she had found a pilot willing to marry her. He had stationed her in Berlin where they had lived a little too well. It had been the eighties, after all.
When her marriage had fallen apart, she’d been flat broke all over again. She hadn’t even had the airfare to fly back to the nothing she had left in America. She had taken up with a midlevel executive who had a wife in the country and an apartment in the city. He had complained constantly that his secretary didn’t know how to use the new computer she had been given to streamline her workload. He was investing in the company that made those contraptions, though, convinced they would soon appear on every desk in every office.
Being highly adaptable, and quite full of shit, Vivien had applied her pretty smile and pretty legs to every office looking for a computer systems manager. Soon she’d been the personal assistant of Oskar Johansson and fathoms deep in love with him. He’d been a bear of a boss, determined to take his father’s sporting goods chain into developing its own line of gear that would dominate the industry and very soon had.
He had also been married. When she and Oskar had become a little too close one night, and she had subsequently turned up pregnant, quite by accident—Vivien hadn’t wanted or planned to have children—Oskar had set her up in Manhattan where she had lived very well. She had seen him often, as he made regular visits to see their son, Trigg, but she didn’t sleep with him again until his first wife died. Then Oskar had married Vivien and she had been living like the one percent ever since.
What she had never lived, nor aspired to be, was middle class.
Taking in the home of Chief Adams and his recently deceased wife, Suzanne, she supposed this midlevel of society had its charms. The furniture was decent quality, if worn, the dishes pretty, if department store brand. There was a cozy permanence to the array of snapshots and children’s artwork and hand-knitted throws that spoke of familial connection, though. That was something Vivien had aspired to, especially when she’d been married to a workaholic, fighting his pigheaded, teenaged stepson for a shred of respect, fairly begging him to return the love of his hero-worshipping, much younger half-brother.
That ship of nuclear-family perfection had long sailed, though. Her husband was dead and his sons were adults. She had a fortune at her disposal and wasn’t a snob, per se, but she liked the way she lived. She had no intention of taking a step backward.
Which was why she was so frustrated by this ski resort project Trigg and Rolf had taken on. She’d fought Oskar on buying the wretched thing, but it would seem her lot in life was to manage hardheaded men.
And yes, Whiskey Jack Resort would eventually cater to the level of society she had risen to call peers, but currently she was living with blue-collar laborers in a pioneer setting. There was no shopping, no river cruises, and her best dinner parties were attended by athletes and executives, as if she hadn’t had her fill of those in this lifetime.
There wasn’t even a spa—yet—to turn her boredom into pampered ennui.
What was she supposed to do, though? Live in Berlin and hope Rolf and Trigg would visit once or twice a year, when they happened to be in Europe? Follow Trigg on his training circuit? Of course, she would always attend his most important races. South Korea had been a welcome reprieve from homesteading in the Rockies, but that visit to civilization was over and here she was, back in the backwater, her only choice of setting if she wanted any involvement in her sons’ lives at all.
And what of male companionship? Marvin Cormer was her natural squire to local events, being her contemporary and the father of her stepson’s fiancée. He was chivalrous and well educated, but he looked like an old English sheepdog in an unpressed suit. At best, he kept the other middle-aged heathens at bay, but he wasn’t a serious option for romance. If she attached herself to any man, it would be one who would keep her in the style to which she’d grown accustomed. When it came to running his lodge, Marvin was a disaster looking for the quickest route to bankruptcy.
She couldn’t imagine what had possessed Trigg to entrust such a vital piece of the resort’s restoration to such a haphazard man. Trigg was as stubborn as his brother and father, though. And loyal, which she couldn’t fault. A dreamer, too. That would be her DNA, she supposed, since believing she was destined for a life of grandeur was the primary reason she lived one.
No, she wouldn’t have any luck convincing Trigg the Whiskey Jack Ski Resort was a bad idea. As for Rolf, well, he was Oskar two-point-oh, veins seething with more piss and vinegar than a man had a right to. He had committed to Oskar’s original vision of Whiskey Jack becoming the number one resort in the world. Moving Rolf from a course he’d chosen was like moving the mountain he was trying to revive. Exasperated tolerance was the best she had ever been able to expect from him.
So here she was, mingling with the proletariat, trying to work out how to be happy with what she had. With this.
“Vivien.” Rolf cast his shadow over her.
“Bärchen.” Forced affection always made Rolf bristle, which was half the reason she did it, but the endearment was apropos. He was a bear, if not a little one. And she adored him for his thorny personality. He reminded her so much of Oskar, she couldn’t help love him with all her heart, the monster. “Do you need me to find a vase or something?”
She’d seen him moving around the home, using his long arms to set flower arrangements on every flat surface. She set aside the tea she’d only accepted to have something to do with her hands. Her bladder wasn’t the stalwart it used to be and she’d heard rumors there was only one bathroom in this house. Honestly, they might as well have an outhouse at this rate. This wasn’t even glamping.
“The lodge needs a new manager.” Quick to the abrasive point, as always.
“Since Trigg ghosted the last one.”
“Tsk.” She sighed, longing to defend her son, but how could she?
“Help Marvin for real this time. Don’t just hire a replacement. Make it all work.”
All? Simple as that?
“I have my hands full with organizing your wedding. In case you’ve forgotten.” And the town’s best catering option had just been laid to rest. She offered the calm smile she always used when the rest of the world was running around like their hair was on fire. Taking control was easy when you acted like you already had it.
“There won’t be a wedding if the lodge isn’t ready. Marvin leans so hard on Glory he pushes her out the door.”
“Devon will get every room guest-ready by July. Of that, I have no doubt. And Glory wouldn’t leave you again.”
“No, she won’t, because you’ll prop up Marvin and hire whoever is needed to make that place run like a well-oiled clock.”
So much like his father she wanted to smack him.
But if Trigg somehow caused the lodge to fail, by impacting staff or by his choice in teaming up with Marvin in the first place, Rolf would never forgive him.
Ah, parenting. Did it ever end?
“I’ll see what I can do.”
“Danke. And why did you invite Ilke to the lodge again?” He switched to German to underline how dismayed he was.
“She arrived?” She skipped the part where she had no idea the girl was coming. “I talked to her in Korea. You know that.” Vivien had said she hoped Ilke would find time to visit again soon. It hadn’t been empty manners. Ilke held a special place in Vivien’s heart. Still, she was dead-shocked Ilke had taken her up on the offer. Ilke isolated herself at the best of times and after her disappointing performance in Korea, this definitely counted as ‘worst.’
Rolf wasn’t happy, though. He’d been downright pissed after Ilke had been here over the new year, skiing with one of his heli-tour groups. He hadn’t said it in so many words, but Vivien read him like a primary reader. Ilke didn’t have anyone to spend the holidays with, however, and sexism annoyed Vivien. It had held her back so often during her own professional life; she always called out her sons when they forgot that Oskar’s boys’ club had died with him.
“Run these things past me in the future,” Rolf said. Commanded.
“Don’t feel threatened, darling.” The thing with Rolf was, if she didn’t head right into the eye of the storm, he won by default.
He narrowed his gaze so his brown eyes were slits of hammered copper. “Ich nicht.” I don’t.
“Then there’s no problem, is there?” Checkmate. Not her first Johansson.
“Why is she here? She should be in Norway, finishing the season.”
Vivien’s heart had broken for Ilke as she watched the poor girl drop like a stone in the rankings. “Let her lick her wounds a few days.”
“Is that what she’s doing? Because that’s not how you win. Is she injured?”
At their level, team doctors did everything they could to keep athletes competing. Ilke would have to be in a full-body cast for Rolf to believe she couldn’t ski.
Before she could conjure a prevarication, she spotted Nate moving toward the door, zipping his leather aviator jacket.
“Nate! I thought you’d left already.” She waved him over.
“Leaving now.” He and Rolf stood eye to eye. “I want to finish the procurement list so we can go over it tomorrow, before you lift off,” he said to Rolf.
Rolf nodded acknowledgment.
Vivien had once heard Devon refer to Nate as ‘the black knight.’ She didn’t think it was meant as an insult. More a remark on how chivalrous he was beneath that strong, silent veneer. Vivien had always found him incredibly appealing, quietly going about his business, never missing a thing, quick to take action that solved a problem without making a fuss.
He was utterly heart-stealing with his son, too. She’d watched him today, not for the first time, standing like an alpha wolf over the litter of children, letting them throw themselves at him while he rolled a snowball, picking up and dusting off the ones who fell on their faces.
Being far too old to make a play for him herself, her matchmaking impulses shot through the roof every time she remembered he was single. Surely there was a woman in the vicinity who could see how badly this smartly turned out specimen needed a mate? Today he was especially handsome, with a freshly trimmed beard and civilian clothes instead of his usual reflective vest, work boots, and radio belt.
“Would you mind terribly if I went back with you?” Vivien asked. “Marvin is still making the rounds.” And could talk the ears off a stalk of corn. He would be here for hours. It was also a convenient excuse to leave this prickly conversation with Rolf and check in with Ilke. They should get their story straight before her stepson’s next interrogation.
Rolf sent her a half-lidded glare, knowing full well what she was doing. “Don’t drag your feet on finding a replacement manager. Glory is ready to castrate Trigg.”
“Likely have to take a number,” Vivien mused.
Nate said nothing, but his mouth pursed as Rolf walked away.
“No comment?” she prompted.
“I expect you’d like grandchildren someday. Might be in your best interest to guard his tackle.”
“Yes, well, mixed feelings if those grandchildren turn out like either of those boys.” No way was she ready to be a grandmother. Grandmothers were old.
She led him toward the bedroom where everyone’s coats were strewn on the bed. Dear Lord, deliver me. She unearthed her wool and cashmere Burberry and smiled as Nate took it to hold for her.
“I suspect Rolf is concerned with his own tackle,” she said. “And how much use it will see.”
“Oh, you must have a comment on that one.” She turned to give him a knowing smile. “I’ve heard the gossip.” There was a running joke amongst the staff that bingo cards should be issued for all the places Rolf and Glory had been caught fooling around. “What happens when Glory delivers his lunch to the base?”
“I eat at the lodge and take my time,” he drawled, holding the door for her, pointing to where he’d left his company-issued pickup truck.
She chuckled, but grew misty at the passion and genuine love between Rolf and Glory. There had been a time when she had felt that deeply cherished by Rolf’s father and sometimes wistfully ached for such devotion again.
“Even so, he doesn’t have to act like losing another manager is a humanitarian crisis. He’s completely forgotten we sent half the staff home through Christmas and I managed to pinch-hit right through the new year—”
She stalled, brain veering to New Year’s Eve. Some of the locals had come out, joining the heli-skiers in the lounge. The party had gone on well past midnight. Ilke and Nate had danced almost exclusively with each other before disappearing as so many other couples had through the course of the evening.
Nate steadied her as she climbed onto the runner and into the truck. He hovered, waiting for her to finish her sentence. She waved at him to close the door.
Nate wasn’t the type to screw around with a local woman, not in a small town where his son resided. She would bet he sought TLC further afield, maybe in Sacramento, when he disappeared to visit family.
Or maybe when a woman passed through whom he wasn’t likely to see again.
A woman who had shown up unexpectedly after a piss-poor performance at the winter games.
“Looks like we’re the first ones back.” Nate put the blade down on the truck as he turned off the highway and resigned himself to a slow crawl through half a foot of snow up to the lodge.
“I thought the city plowed to the parking lot,” Vivien said beside him.
“Once a day. They came by this morning.” Rolf had an arrangement with the town of Haven to clear the access during heavy snowfalls, but the road crews had plenty of other work in town and through the pass to Kalispell with the white stuff falling nonstop this week. “Our own tractor is supposed to sweep it the rest of the time.”
“Everyone had the day off,” she reminded him.
“Yeah, but…” The Adamses were fixtures in Haven. Rolf hadn’t refused any local who had asked to attend the service, which included most of the laborers. Marvin had done the same with his staff and even Devon, Marvin’s contractor renovating the lodge, had only left a couple of carpenters behind. Everyone seemed to know Suzanne and her daughters, loving the food and cheer she had served up at Lazy Suzanne’s.
“Someone should have been down here by now, though. Hope you weren’t in a hurry to get back.”
“No,” Vivien murmured, but her tone almost suggested otherwise. She lapsed into silence.
Nate was fine with silence. He kept thinking about Wanda and how many ways he had already accommodated her—for his son, so they could share custody and not disrupt Aiden’s life too much.
He was still mostly furious with Wanda over everything, including this move to Montana, even if this job had turned into a silver lining.
He was very employable, but where he worked had become an issue even before Wanda came out of the closet. After growing up without his own parents, he had been prepared to do everything in his power to give his son picket-fence perfection. Money had always been tight, though. His grandparents had helped as much as they were able, but he had struggled financially to get into engineering. He had ended up in project management, which he loved, and the pay was lucrative. Unfortunately, bridges and other big construction projects didn’t come to him. The more remote the work, the better it paid.
He had been lured by a windfall travel bonus three years ago. It had been enough to get his wife and son out of her parents’ garage apartment and put a nice down payment on a house of their own. He had left for the pipeline job and returned to money in the bank, but no wife in his bed. Wanda had moved herself into the home of a woman he’d never met. She had fully expected to keep their toddler son with her.
Nate didn’t have an issue with homosexuality, but he was still incensed that Wanda had married him knowing in her heart she preferred women. He could almost forgive her for not coming out to him before he proposed and married her. To this day, her parents hadn’t come to terms with her orientation. He understood why she had kept that secret for so long.
But she had had his baby knowing their marriage was doomed and their little family would come apart at the seams. This, after he had made it clear before he even proposed that it meant everything to him to give his child a stable foundation.
And, rather than telling him she was ready to live her true life, she had slept with Frankie behind his back. The gender of her partner didn’t matter. Infidelity was infidelity.
He continued to feel tricked and cheated and lied to.
Before he could come to terms with any of that, before he had even found a new job local to Sacramento—something that would pay the bills and give him the time he needed for shared custody—Wanda had announced she was moving to Montana.
Frankie, Wanda’s new girlfriend, was a nurse-midwife. She had been on the hiring list for the clinic in Haven for three years and hadn’t wanted to turn down the opportunity once her chance arrived. Frankie’s grandfather owned a house on the edge of town that the pair could buy for a song. Wanda wanted to start a preschool there. Both women believed the town would be thriving in a few years, thanks to rumors the local ski hill would be starting up again.
Nate hadn’t been convinced the women were serious about each other, let alone ready to settle permanently in a mountain village. Winters were cold here. Wanda was Californian, born and raised. She wouldn’t last, even though she had claimed to have visited Haven and loved it. When she had urged him to try getting a job with the resort, he’d damned near refused out of spite, sorely tempted to force her to stay in Sacramento.
He’d looked into the resort more to find a way to dissuade her from the move. The PM job hadn’t been a clear fit for him. He had never been responsible for anything so big and complex. Structures were one thing. The scope of building a mini-town around a network of people-moving equipment was like trying to wrap his brain around the universe accelerating as it expanded.
Still, as he’d read up on the ambitious venture, he’d seen years of steady, interesting work in one place. If the money was there. If the construction milestones could be met on time, on budget.
All challenges he thrived on.
Rolf had been leaning toward hiring a PM who would have commuted from Germany with the rest of the consultants while Rolf lived on site. Rolf had skied damned near every resort in existence as a competitive Alpine racer. He knew exactly what he wanted. His brother, Trigg, was still dominating the snowboarding world, and was equally determined to put his personal stamp on Whiskey Jack Resort’s snow park.
Nate had thrown his hat in the ring with a frankness he might not have risked if his relationship with Aiden hadn’t hung in the balance.
If I don’t have a job, I don’t see my son, he had told Rolf. You won’t find anyone as motivated to make this happen on your terms.
Rolf had gambled on Nate’s drive and they had just passed a year in a working relationship that was as much side by side as it was boss-employee. They’d shared beer, sarcastic banter, and the odd scramble to recover from minor disasters. Nate stayed on top of his workload, gave a hundred and ten percent, offering Rolf no reason to complain about the time he took to spend with Aiden.
This was as good as it got, under the circumstances, but he was still bitter. Wanda wanted another baby? Seriously? He tightened his hands on the wheel in sheer frustration.
“Fu-udge,” Nate muttered as he reached the lodge and started to turn into the staff lot. It was also unplowed. The tractor was sidelined under the streetlamp in the corner. The engine hood was open and a couple of guys were scratching their head as they peered in. “Looks like I’ll have to change and get out here to help. I’ll pull around front so you don’t have to walk through this.”
“You’re such a gentleman, Nate.” Moments later, Vivien clung to the arm he offered after helping her from the truck, letting her hold on to him as they made their way up the slippery walk to the entrance. “Your mother should be very proud of raising such a good man.”
“She died when I was young. I don’t really remember her,” he said, even though he remembered distinctly when she hadn’t come back for him and his sister, despite promising she would. “My grandparents raised me. Grammy would skin me alive if I let my manners slip.”
“Like swearing in front of ladies?” Her tone held laughter at the ‘fudge’ he’d managed to substitute at the last second. “Here’s news. I’m not actually a lady, but be sure to tell your grandmother I appreciate you treating me like one.”
“Will do,” he promised as they stamped their feet on the grate. He reached to open the door for her. It was locked. “I’ll walk around and let you in.”
“Ilke will open it,” she said, pointing through one of the blurred panes of glass in the door.
Ilke. A kick of pure, carnal hunger landed in his gut and shot heat through his limbs. That was before he actually caught sight of the blonde rising from the sofa near the fire. She set aside a book and moved toward the door with athletic grace. He absorbed her smooth gait and the way she flicked back her hair and tilted her head, briefly peering through the glass before she unlocked the doors and let them in.
A smile of anticipation pulled at the corners of his mouth.