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Love is the greatest gamble of all . . .
Nina Sheridan desperately needs a timeout vacation. With a fianc?àö¬© who can’t even remember how she takes her coffee, Nina wants some distance to rethink her engagement. Flying halfway around the world from England to a mountain town in Colorado should do the trick. But when she finds a gorgeous man at her rental cabin, Nina’s cold, lonely adventure suddenly heats up.
The owner of the house, Holden “Max” Maxwell is surprised by the beautiful woman who turns up at his door. But when Nina becomes ill, Max spends days nursing her back to health. A private man with a broken heart, Max finds himself drawn to the strong-willed woman. Soon it becomes impossible for Nina and Max to deny their growing attraction to one another. Yet even as these two wounded souls think about taking a chance on a relationship, a secret from Max’s past emerges-and threatens to end their love for good.
Table of Contents
A Preview of Sweet Dreams
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I LOOKED AT the clock on the dash of the rental car, then back out at the snow.
I was already twenty minutes late to meet the caretaker. Not only was I worried that I was late, I was also worried that, after I eventually made it there, he had to drive home in this storm. The roads were worsening by the second. The slick had turned to black ice in some places, snow cover in others. I just hoped he lived close to the A-frame.
Then again, he was probably used to this, living in a small mountain town in Colorado. This was probably nothing to him.
It scared the hell out of me.
I resisted the urge to look at the directions I'd memorized on the plane (or, more accurately, before I even got on the plane), which were sitting by my purse in the passenger seat. There was no telling how far away I was and what made matters worse was that I was doing half of what I suspected, but wasn't sure, was the speed limit.
Not to mention the fact that I was exhausted and jet-lagged, having been either on the road, on a plane, or in a grocery store the last seventeen hours.
And not to mention the fact that yesterday (or was it the day before? I couldn't figure out which in changing time zones), I got that weird feeling in my sinuses that either meant a head cold was coming or something worse and that feeling was not going away.
Not to mention the further fact that night had fallen and with it a snowstorm that was building as the moments ticked by. Starting with flurries now I could barely see five feet in front of the car. I'd checked the weather reports and it was supposed to be clear skies for the next few days. It was nearing on April, only two days away. How could there be this much snow?
I wondered what Niles was thinking, though he probably wasn't thinking anything since he was likely sleeping. Whereas, if he was off on some adventure by himself, or even if he was with friends (which was unlikely, as Niles didn't have many friends), I would be awake, worried and wondering if he made it to his destination alive and breathing. Especially if he had that niggling feeling in his sinuses that I told him I had before I left.
I had to admit, he didn't tell me he wanted me to ring when I got to the A-frame safe and sound. He didn't say much at all. Even when I told him before we decided on churches and dates that I needed a two-week time-out. Time to think about our relationship and our future. Time to myself to get my head together. Time to have a bit of adventure, shake up my life a little, clear out the cobwebs in my head and the ones I fancied were attached (and getting thicker by the day) to every facet of my boring, staid, predictable life.
And, I also had to admit, no matter where I went and what I did, Niles didn't seem bothered with whether I arrived safe and sound. He didn't check in, even if I was traveling for work and would be away for a few days. And when I checked in, he didn't seem bothered with the fact that I was checking in. Or, lately (because I tested it a couple of times), when I didn't check in and then arrived home safely, sometimes days later, he didn't seem bothered by the fact that I hadn't checked in.
The unpleasant direction of my thoughts shifted when I saw my turn and I was glad of it. It meant I was close, not far away at all now. If it had been a clear night, I figured from what it said in the directions, I'd be there in five minutes. I carefully turned right and concentrated on the ever decreasing visibility of the landscape. Making a left turn, then another right before heading straight up an incline that I feared my car wouldn't make. But I saw it, shining like a beacon all lit up for me to see.
The A-frame, just like it looked on the Internet, except without the pine trees all around it, the mountain backdrop, and the bright shining sun. Of course, they were probably there (except the sun, seeing as it was night); I just couldn't see them.
It was perfect.
"Come on, baby, come on, you can make it," I cooed to the car, relief sweeping through me at the idea of my journey being at an end. I leaned forward as if that would build the car's momentum to get up the incline.
Fortune belatedly shined on me (and the car) and we made it to the postbox with the partially snow-covered letters that said "Maxwell," signifying the beginning of the drive that ran along the front of the house. I turned right again and drove carefully toward the Jeep Cherokee that was parked in front of the house.
"Thank God," I whispered when I'd stopped and pulled up the parking brake, my mind moving immediately to what was next.
Meet caretaker, get keys and instructions.
Empty car of suitcases and copious bags of groceries, two weeks' worth of holiday food—in other words, stuff that was good for me, as per usual, but also stuff that was definitely not, as was not per usual.
Put away perishables.
Make bed (if necessary).
Take cold medicine I bought at the grocery store.
Call Niles if even just to leave a voice mail message.
It was the sleep I was most looking forward to. I didn't think I'd ever been that exhausted.
In order to make the trips back and forth to the car one less, I grabbed my purse, exited the car, and slung my bag over my shoulder. Then I went to the boot, taking as many grocery bags by the handle as I could carry. I was cautious; the snow had carpeted the front drive and the five steps that led up to the porch that ran the length of the A-frame and I was in high-heeled boots. Even though it was far too late (though I had checked the weather forecast and thought I was safe), I was rethinking my choice of wearing high-heeled boots by the time I hit the porch.
I didn't get one step across it before the glass front door opened and a man stood in its frame, his front shadowed by the night, his back silhouetted by the lights from inside.
"Oh, hi, so, so, so sorry I'm late. The storm held me up." I hastily explained my easily explainable rudeness (for anyone could see it was snowing, which would make any smart driver be careful) as I walked across the porch.
The man moved and the outside light came on, blinding me for a second.
I stopped to let my eyes adjust and heard, "What the fuck?"
I blinked, focused, and then I could do nothing but stare.
He did not look like what I thought a caretaker would look like.
He was tall, very tall, with very broad shoulders. His hair was dark, nearly black, wavy, and there was a lot of it sweeping back from his face like a stylist had just finished coifing it to perfection. He was wearing a plaid flannel shirt over a white thermal, the sleeves of the shirt rolled back to expose the thermal at his wrists and up his forearms. Faded jeans, thick socks on his feet, and tanned skin stretched over a face that had such flawless bone structure a blind person would be in throes of ecstasy if they got their fingers on him. Strong jaw and brow, defined cheekbones. Unbelievable.
Though, in my estimation, he was a couple days away from a good clean shave.
"Mr. Andrews?" I asked.
"No," he answered, and said no more.
"I—" I started, then didn't know what to say.
My head swung from side to side. Then I looked behind me at my car and the Cherokee, back around and up at the A-frame.
This was the picture from the website, exactly it. Wasn't it?
I looked back at him. "I'm sorry. I was expecting the caretaker."
"Yes, a Mr. Andrews."
"You mean Slim?"
"Um…," I answered.
"Slim isn't here."
"Are you here to give me the keys?" I asked.
"The keys to what?"
He stared at me for several seconds and then muttered, "Shit," and right after uttering that profanity, he walked into the house, leaving the door open.
I didn't know what to do and I stood outside for a moment before deciding maybe the open door was an indication that I should follow him in.
I did so, closing the door with my foot, stamping my feet on the mat to get rid of the snow, and looking around.
Total open space, all shining wood. Gorgeous.
Usually, websites depicting holiday destinations made things look better than they really were. This was the opposite. No picture could do this place justice.
To the left, the living area, big, wide, long comfortable couch with throws over it. At the side of the couch, facing the windows, a huge armchair two people could sit in happily (if cozily) with an ottoman in front of it. Square, sturdy, rustic table between the chair and couch, another one, lower, a bigger square, in front of the couch. A lamp on the smaller table, its base made from a branch, now lighting the space. Another standing lamp in the corner of the room by the windows made from another, longer, thicker branch with buffaloes running across the shade, also lit. A fireplace, its gorgeous stone chimney disappearing into the slant of the A-frame; in its grate a cheerful fire blazed.
A recessed alcove to the back where there was a rolltop desk with an old-fashioned swivel chair in front of it, a rocking chair in the corner by another floor lamp, its base looked like a log and was also lighting the space.
A spiral staircase to a railed loft that jutted over the main living space and there were two doors under the loft, one I knew led to a three-quarter bath, the other one, likely storage.
The pictures of the loft on the website showed it held a queen-sized bed, had a fantastic master bath with a small sauna and a walk-in closet.
To the right I saw a kitchen, perhaps not top-of-the-line and state-of-the-art but it wasn't shabby by a long shot. Granite countertops in a long U, one along the side of the house, the other, a double top, a low, wide counter with a higher bar, both sliced into the open area, and the bar had two stools in front of it. A plethora of knotty pine cabinets that gleamed. Midrange appliances in stainless steel. Another recess at the back where the sink was, the fridge to the left. And a six-seater dining table at its end by the floor to A-frame windows, also in knotty pine, with a big hurricane-lamp-style glass candleholder at its center filled with sage-green sand in which was stuck a fat cream candle. Over it hung a candelabra also made from branches and also lit.
"You got paperwork?" the man asked, and I was so caught up in surveying the space and thinking how beautiful it was and how all my weeks of worries if I was doing the right thing and my seventeen hours of exhausting travel was worth getting to that fabulous house, I started. Then I looked at him.
He was in the kitchen and he'd nabbed a cordless phone. I walked in his direction, put the grocery bags on the bar, and dug in my purse to find my travel wallet. I pulled it out, snapped it open, and located the confirmation papers.
"Right here," I said, flicking them out and handing them to him.
He took them even though he was also dialing the phone with his thumb.
"Is there a prob—" I asked. His eyes sliced to me and I shut up.
His eyes were gray, a clear, light gray. I'd never seen anything like them. Especially not framed with thick, long, black lashes.
"Slim?" he said into the phone. "Yeah, got a woman here… a…" He looked down at the papers. "Miss Sheridan."
"Ms.," I corrected automatically, and his clear gray eyes came back to me.
It had also dawned on me, at this juncture, that he had a strangely attractive voice. It was deep, very deep, but it wasn't smooth. It was rough, almost gravelly.
"A Ms. Sheridan." He cut into my thoughts and emphasized the "Ms." in a way that I thought maybe wasn't very nice. "She's lookin' for keys."
I waited for this Slim person, who I suspected was Mr. Andrews, the absent caretaker, to explain to this amazing-looking man that I had a confirmed two-week reservation, prepaid, with a rather substantial deposit in the rather unlikely event of damage. And also I waited for this Slim person to tell this amazing-looking man that there obviously was some mistake and perhaps he should vacate the premises so I could unload my car, put away the perishables, have a shower, talk to Niles, and, most importantly, go to sleep.
"Yeah, you fucked up," the amazing-looking man said into the phone. He concluded the conversation with, "I'll sort it out," beeped a button, and tossed the phone with a clatter onto the counter. After doing that, he said to me, "Slim fucked up."
"Um, yes, I'm beginning to see that."
"There's a hotel down the mountain 'bout fifteen miles away."
I think my mouth dropped open but my mind had blanked so I wasn't sure.
Then I said, "What?"
"Hotel in town, clean, decent views, good restaurant. Down the mountain where you came. You get to the main road, turn left, it's about ten miles."
He handed me my papers, walked to the front door, opened it, and stood holding it, his eyes on me.
I stood where I was and looked out the floor-to-A-point windows at the swirling snow; then I looked at the amazing but, I was tardily realizing, unfriendly man.
"I have a booking," I told him.
"A booking," I repeated, then explained in American, "a reservation."
"Yeah, Slim fucked up."
I shook my head; the shakes were short and confused. "But I prepaid two weeks."
"Like I said, Slim fucked up."
"With deposit," I went on.
"You'll get a refund."
I blinked at him, then asked, "A refund?"
"Yeah," he said to me, "a refund, as in, you'll get your money back."
"But—" I began, but stopped speaking when he sighed loudly.
"Ms.," I corrected again.
"Whatever," he said curtly. "There was a mistake. I'm here."
It hadn't happened in a while but I was thinking I was getting angry. Then again, I'd just traveled for seventeen-plus hours. I was in a different country in a different time zone. It was late, dark, snow was falling, and the roads were treacherous. I had hundreds of dollars' worth of groceries in my car, some of which would go bad if not refrigerated and hotels didn't have refrigerators, at least not big refrigerators. And I was tired and I had a head cold coming on. So I could be forgiven for getting angry.
"Well, so am I," I returned.
"Yeah, you are, but it's my house."
"I own it."
I shook my head and it was those short, confused shakes again.
"But it's a rental."
"It is when I'm not here. It isn't when I'm home."
What was happening finally dawned on me fully.
"So, what you're saying is, my confirmed booking is really an unconfirmed booking and you're canceling at what is the absolute definition of the very last minute?"
"That's what I'm sayin'."
"I don't understand."
"I'm speakin' English. We do share a common language. I'm understandin' you."
I was confused again. "What?"
His brows snapped together and it made him look a little scary, mainly because his face grew dark at the same time. "You don't sound American to me."
"Well, I am."
"Whatever," he muttered, then swept an arm toward the open door. "You'll get a refund first thing Monday morning."
"You can't do that."
"I just did."
"This is… I don't… you can't—"
"Listen, Ms. Sheridan, it's late. The longer you stand there talkin', the longer it'll take you to get to the hotel."
I looked out at the snow again, then back at him.
"It's snowing," I informed him of the obvious.
"This is why I'm tellin' you, you best get on the road."
I stared at him for a second that turned into about ten of them.
Then I whispered, "I can't believe this."
I didn't have to wonder if I was getting angry. This was because I knew I was livid and I was too tired to think about what I said next.
I shoved the papers into my purse, snatched up my grocery bags, walked directly to him, stopped, and tilted my head back to glare at him.
"So, who's going to refund the money for the gas for my car?" I asked.
"Ms.," I hissed, leaning toward him and continuing. "And who's going to refund my plane ticket all the way from England where I live but my passport is blue?" I didn't let him respond before I went on. "And who's going to pay me back for my holiday in a beautiful A-frame in the Colorado mountains, which I've spent seventeen-plus hours traveling to reach? Traveling, I might add, to a destination I paid for in full but didn't get to enjoy at all?" He opened his mouth but I kept right on talking. "I didn't fly over an ocean and most of a continent to stay in a clean hotel with nice views. I did it to stay here."
"No, you listen to me. I'm tired, my sinuses hurt, and it's snowing. I haven't driven in snow in years, not like that." I pointed into the darkness, extending my grocery-bag-laden arm. "And you're sending me on my way, well past nine o'clock at night, after reneging on a contract."
As I was talking, his face changed from looking annoyed to something I couldn't decipher. Suddenly, he grinned and it irritated me to see he had perfect, white, even teeth.
"Your sinuses hurt?" he asked.
"Yes," I snapped. "My sinuses hurt, a lot," I told him, then shook my head again; this time they were short, angry shakes. "Forget it. What do you care? I'm too tired for this."
And I was. Way too tired. I'd figure out what I was going to do tomorrow.
I stomped somewhat dramatically (and I was of the opinion I could be forgiven for that too) into the night, thinking this was my answer. This was the universe telling me I should play it safe. Marry Niles. Embrace security even if it was mostly boring, and deep down if I admitted it to myself, it made me feel lonelier than I've ever felt in my life.
If this was an adventure, it stunk.
I'd rather be sitting in front of a TV with Niles (kind of).
I opened the boot and put the bags back in. When I tried to close it, it wouldn't move.
This was because Unfriendly, Amazing-Looking Man was now outside, standing by my car and he had a firm hand on it.
"Let go," I demanded.
"Come back into the house. We'll work somethin' out, least for tonight."
Was he mad? Work something out? As in him and me staying in the A-frame together? I didn't even know his name, and furthermore, he was a jerk.
"Thank you," I said snottily. "No. Let go."
"Come into the house," he repeated.
"Let go," I repeated right back at him.
He leaned close to me. "Listen, Duchess, it's cold. It's snowing. We're both standin' outside like idiots arguing over what you wanted in the first place. Come into the damned house. You can sleep on the couch."
"I am not going to sleep on a couch." My head jerked and I asked, "Duchess?"
"My couch is comfortable and beggars can't be choosers."
I let that slide and repeated, "Duchess?"
He threw his other hand out, his gaze drifting the length of me as he said, "Fancy-ass clothes, fancy-ass purse, fancy-ass boots, fancy-ass accent." His eyes came to my face and he finished firmly. "Duchess."
"I'm American!" I shouted.
"Right," he replied.
"They don't have duchesses in America," I educated him.
"Well, that's the truth."
Why was I explaining about aristocracy? I returned to target.
"Let go!" I shouted again.
He completely ignored my shouting and looked into the boot.
Then he asked, what I thought was insanely, "Groceries?"
"Yes," I snapped. "I bought them in Denver."
He looked at me and grinned again, and again I thought it was insanely, before he muttered, "Rookie mistake."
"Would you let go so I can close the boot and be on my way?"
I think at that point I might have growled but being as I was alarmed at seeing only red, I didn't really take note.
"Mr.…" I hesitated, then said, "Whoever-you-are—"
"No, just Max."
I leaned toward him and snapped, "Whatever." Then demanded, "Let go of the car."
"Yes," I bit out. "Seriously. Let. Go. Of. The. Car."
He let go of the car and said, "Suit yourself."
"It would suit me if I could travel back in time and not click 'book now' on that stupid webpage," I muttered as I slammed the boot and stomped to the driver's side door. " 'Idyllic A-Frame in the Colorado Mountains,' not even bloody close. More like Your Worst Snowstorm Nightmare in the Colorado Mountains."
I was in the car and had slammed the door but I was pretty certain before I did it I heard him chuckling.
Even angry, I wasn't stupid and I carefully reversed out of his drive, probably looking like a granny driver and I didn't care. I wanted out of his sight, away from the glorious yet denied A-frame and in closer proximity to a bed that I could actually sleep in and I didn't want that bed to be in a hospital.
I turned out of his drive and drove a lot faster (but still not very fast) and I kept driving and I didn't once look into my mirrors to see the lost A-frame.
Adrenaline was still rushing through my system and I was still as angry as I think I'd ever been when I was what I figured was close to the main road but I couldn't be sure and I hit a patch of snow-shrouded ice, lost control of the rental, and slid into a ditch.
When my heart stopped tripping over itself and the lump in my throat stopped threatening to kill me, I looked at the snow in front of my car and mumbled, "Beautiful." I went on to mumble, "Brilliant."
Then I burst out crying.
* * *
I woke up or at least I thought I woke up.
I could see brightness, a lot of it, and a soft, beige pillowcase.
But my eyeballs felt like they were three times their normal size. My eyelids actually felt swollen. My head felt stuffed with cotton wool. My ears felt funny, like they were tunnels big enough to fit a train through. My throat hurt like hell. And lastly, my body felt leaden, like it would take every effort just to move an inch.
I made that effort and managed to get up on a forearm. Then I made more of an effort and pulled my hair out of my eyes.
What I saw was a bright, sunshiny day out of the top of an A-frame window through a railing. I could see snow and lots of it and pine trees and lots of those too. If I didn't feel so terrible, I would have realized how beautiful it was.
Cautiously, because my stuffed up head was also swimming, I looked around and saw the loft bedroom from the A-frame website.
"I'm dreaming," I muttered. My voice was raspy and speaking made my throat hurt.
I also needed to use the bathroom, which I could see the door leading to one in front of me.
I used more of my waning energy to swing my legs over the bed. I stood up and swayed, mainly because, I was realizing, I was sick as a dog. Then I swayed again as I looked down at myself.
I was in a man's T-shirt, huge, red, or it had been at one time in its history. Now it was a washed out red. On the left chest it had a cartoonlike graphic of what looked like a man with crazy hair madly playing a piano over which the words "My Brother's Bar" were displayed in an arch.
I opened up the collar to the shirt, peered through it, and stared at my naked body, save my still-in-place panties.
I let the collar go and whispered, "Oh my God."
Something had happened.
The last thing I remembered was bedding down in the backseat of the rental having covered myself with sweaters and hoping someone would happen onto me somewhat early in the morning.
I'd tried unsuccessfully to get the car out of the ditch and, exhausted and not feeling all that well, I'd given up. I'd decided against walking in an unknown area to try to find the main road or happen onto someone who might just be stupid enough to be driving in a blinding snowstorm. Instead, I was going to wait it out.
I also suspected that I'd never get to sleep. Not in a car, in a ditch, in a snowstorm after a showdown with an unfriendly but insanely attractive man. So I took some nighttime cough medicine, hoping to beat back the cold that was threatening, covered myself with sweaters, and bedded down in the backseat.
Apparently, I had no trouble getting to sleep.
Now I was here.
Back at the A-frame.
In nothing but panties and a man's T-shirt.
Maybe this was My Worst Snowstorm Nightmare in the Colorado Mountains. Weird things happened to women who traveled alone. Weird things that meant they were never seen again.
And this was all my fault. I wanted a time-out from my life. I wanted an adventure.
I thought maybe I should make a run for it. The problem was, I was sick as a dog and I had to go to the bathroom.
I decided bathroom first, create strategy to get out of my personal horror movie second.
When I'd used the facilities (the bathroom, drat it, was fabulous, just like in the photos) and washed my hands, I walked out to see Unfriendly, Amazing-Looking Man—otherwise known as Max—ascending the spiral staircase.
Like every stupid, senseless, idiotic heroine in a horror movie, I froze and I vowed if I got out of there alive I'd never make fun of another stupid, senseless, idiotic heroine in a horror movie again (which I did, every time I watched a horror movie).
He walked into the room and looked at me.
"You're awake," he noted.
"Yes," I replied cautiously.
He looked at the bed, then at me. "Called Triple A. They're gonna come up, pull out your car."
His head tipped to the side as he studied my face and asked, "Are you okay?"
"Yes," I lied.
"You don't look too good."
Immediately a different, stupid, senseless, idiotic feminine trait reared its ugly head and I took affront.
"Thanks," I snapped sarcastically.
His lips tipped up at the ends and he took a step toward me.
I took a step back.
He stopped, his brows twitching at my retreat, then said, "I mean, you don't look like you feel well."
"I'm perfectly fine," I lied.
"And you don't sound like you feel well."
"This is how I sound normally," I lied yet again.
"It isn't how you sounded last night."
- On Sale
- Jun 20, 2017
- Page Count
- 640 pages