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Poppy Walker has a plan to restore the family resort, and she's sticking to it. So when a good-looking guy with plenty of cash rents one of her half-repaired vacation cabins, she figures that he's just what the handyman ordered. But when a storm blows through, it takes down some trees, her roof, and then . . . her self-control. Even though she's been burned before by a wealthy passer-through, she can't stay away from the brooding but gorgeous stranger in the bungalow next door.
Former teen idol turned Hollywood exec Ryan Hamilton wants a private place in which to endure his very personal heartbreak. Finally, at this rustic mountain cabin, he has all the seclusion one man could want-until sparks begin to fly with his sexy, formerly chilly landlady. By the time the weather dies down, they're both hot, bothered, and certain that they're still wrong for each other. But there's no telling how they'll face the new storm brewing on the horizon . . .
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Christie Ridgway is the award-winning, USA Today bestselling author of more than forty-five contemporary romance novels. A six-time RITA finalist, she writes sexy, emotional reads starring determined heroines and the men who can't help but love them. Christie lives in Southern California. Visit her at christieridgway.com.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Poppy Walker just wanted something good to come from the next ten days. The next ten days, the first ten in March, when she had to do without the company of the only man she'd ever love. Earlier that morning, she'd worn her game face as she'd waved goodbye to her five-year-old son.
The tears she'd saved for the ride back from her cousin's house to the family land, four miles off the mountain highway that served a popular Southern California resort area. One hundred and fifty years before, her ancestors had secured their place seven thousand feet above sea level, and what remained were steep slopes, several acres of pines, cedars and dogwoods, as well as a dozen dilapidated cabins, all currently covered in snow.
Over the Christmas holidays, when she'd learned that her current place of employment, Inn Klein, was about to invest in a big remodel, it had sparked Poppy's own bright idea. Then and there, she'd decided to refurbish the family cabins as vacation rentals to generate a supplemental income to share between herself, her two sisters and her brother.
Unfortunately, her siblings weren't of the same mind. Instead, they believed in the outlandish and archaic family curse: that nothing good could ever come of this piece of Walker property. Ridiculous.
"C'mon, Grimm," she called to her Lab-German shepherd mix. Dressed in a cotton turtleneck, thick sweatshirt, old jeans and scruffy work boots, she led him out of the cabin where she and her son, Mason, had moved just a couple of weeks before. It was the best of the dwellings and one of five that ringed a small clearing carpeted with snow. The remaining seven were nestled among the trees in the surrounding forest.
Her dog pranced beside her, unsure of the game but a willing participant all the same.
"First order of business is cabin four," she told him. "We're going to clean up the inside." He responded with his doggy grin.
The initial step in the process was to get the water turned on so she could scrub. That involved opening the small door cut into the siding, pretending she didn't see the creepy, ropy spiderwebs then twisting the handle that would let the liquid rush into the pipes.
That went off without a hitch. Inside the kitchen, she pushed a bucket under the spout and turned the faucet handle, expecting a gratifying gush. It didn't come. "Uh-oh," she said, feeling a twinge of dismay.
Grimm seemed much more cavalier than she, wagging his tail as he followed her back to the little door. When they got there, she knew instantly what had gone wrong, as water was spreading from beneath the raised foundation. "Broken pipe," she informed Grimm, dismay turning to real alarm. Surely that would be a costly repair. Braving the cobwebs a second time, she twisted the handle in the opposite direction and started a mental review of her bank balances.
On the heels of that depressing thought process, she allowed herself a fifteen-second wallow in self-pity. Then she straightened her shoulders and once again addressed her dog. "Cabin three, it is, Grimm," she said, reaching for the ring of keys in her pocket.
The one that fit the only entry to cabin three broke off in the knob.
That would probably be a much cheaper fix, but it was yet another to add to an already large pile, so this time she went with a thirty-second wallow during which she saw her brother and sisters in her mind's eye, each of them saying, "I told you so, knucklehead," in their own inimitable style.
Once that was over, she marched off to retrieve the wooden ladder leaning behind her own cottage. "Time to check out the roof of cabin two," she told Grimm as she hefted the old contraption to the dwelling next door to her own. "I'm a little worried about its condition." Not that she knew what to look for actually, but surely something obvious would stand out.
She didn't get a chance to perform her inspection, however. Because even though she chose level ground on which to place the ladder, and even though she took great care to lock the metal spreader in place, when her boot met the third step, its wood tread cracked in two, and she tumbled down, her butt landing in cold, wet snow.
Poppy lay staring up at the peak of their mountain silhouetted against the deep blue sky, thinking dark thoughts about her siblings and their maybe not-so-ridiculous superstitions.
But Poppy Walker, cock-eyed optimist, refused to concede defeat.
"That's it," she said to Grimm, who stood looking down at her in some concern. "The real first order of business is lifting the stupid family curse."
Poppy pushed open the door of Johnson's Grocery, her mind on the list of ingredients she needed per her brief stop at the Blue Arrow Lake branch library. Johnson's Grocery was located on the same street, so she thought she'd start there.
Someone hailed her from the back of the store, where a butcher's case held fancy cuts of grass-fed beef, stuffed breasts of duck and free-range chicken, as well as fillets of salmon prepared for grilling. The store was small—real estate in the mountain resort area went at princely rates—but the narrow aisles were packed with gourmet foods, expensive liquor and fancy wines. Everything and anything a filthy rich Los Angeleno couldn't do without during a getaway to what was known as "Hollywood on High."
Cheaper merchandise could be had if she'd driven to a larger community, but that would have cost her in time and gas money, so Johnson's was her go-to market.
The endcap nearest the entrance displayed a selection of expensive children's toys, everything from miniature fishing rods to expansive LEGO sets for snowbound weekends. Gazing on them, Poppy's heart squeezed, sending a rush of tender longing through her veins. Mason, she thought, picturing her towheaded boy, who right now was on his way to a vacation filled with such delights as whirling in teacups and flying with Dumbo.
Mason, I miss you so much.
At the sound of her name, she glanced over, smiled. "Hey, Bill." Bill Anders was a scarecrow of a man, and wore a bibbed, crisp cotton apron with the store's name stitched on the front, most likely by his wife. She had an embroidery business in addition to the daycare she ran. Like many people who lived in the mountains year-round, the Anderses cobbled together a living out of more than one line of work.
"Heard Mason went to Walt Disney World with your cousin James."
"That's right. James and Deanne wanted company for their own little guy on a visit to Deanne's parents. When Mason heard the magic words Mickey Mouse, I could hardly say no."
"Heard, too, that you got laid off from Inn Klein until the remodel's complete. Sorry for it."
"Thanks," she said, hiding her grimace by stepping past the shopkeeper on her way to the fresh fruits and vegetables. Of course, news traveled fast when you lived in a tight community like this one. She knew how this worked, didn't she? People had been in the Walkers' business—and they in everyone else's, she supposed—since the logging family's arrival in the mountains.
But Poppy had felt her friends' and neighbors' interest in a more up-close and personal fashion. Collective eyebrows had lifted and noses had twitched when she'd found herself pregnant by a summer visitor who'd skedaddled back to his moneyed family in Beverly Hills the minute she'd informed him of the test results. Though the truth was, Poppy minded less people gossiping about her sex life than them knowing she'd been dumb enough to fall for a rich and careless man.
Her mother had made a similar mistake before Poppy. Though she couldn't wish her half-sister, Shay, had never been born.
Nor did Poppy regret one moment with Mason.
Mason... She mouthed his name, her heart starting to hurt all over again.
Then she shook off the melancholy. Think of something else, she commanded herself, as she stepped up to the tiered rows of produce, glistening from a recent misting. Think of making something of the cabins. Think of getting rid of that stupid curse.
"Sage," she murmured to herself, inspecting the selection of fresh herbs. Pulling a bunch of the gray-green leaves from the stack, she frowned at the price. There wouldn't be a paycheck from the inn until it reopened July 4th, and the aromatic was expensive. As a rational woman, Poppy didn't, of course, completely buy in to the idea she could eradicate any negative energy at the cabins. But...
She was determined. And desperate.
Wincing at the mental admission, she dumped the herb into her basket and started her hunt for rock salt. Despite the dire predictions of her older brother, Brett, her older sister, Mackenzie, and her younger sister, Shay, Poppy hoped that by summer the dwellings would be available as weekly vacation rentals. Cabin two—if you didn't count the dubious state of the roof—was already in decent shape and with a fingers-crossed kind of optimism, she'd placed notices on the community bulletin boards around town, including the one here at Johnson's.
Despite the point-of-view of her pessimistic sibs, Poppy would prove to them that the Walker albatross could be turned into an eagle, after all.
The cowbell tied to the store's front door clattered, interrupting Poppy's train of thought. She glanced toward the door.
Her guard instantly jerked up. From twenty paces she recognized the man standing on the mat. She didn't know his identity—that was well-hidden by a watch cap pulled low on his forehead, the fancy Wayfarers that covered his eyes and the dark scarf wrapped around his neck that almost completely obscured his mouth—but she knew his type.
She'd bet the scarf was cashmere and that those sun specs retailed for five hundred bucks or more. The waterproof jacket and boots came from a highend store that catered to "outdoorsmen" who spent their summer days sipping martinis on the terraces of their lakeside mansions while watching their fancy boats bob up and down at private docks. They whiled away winter nights beside fires built by other hands, eating meals prepared by personal chefs brought up from L.A. The wine in their glasses would cost more than Poppy's monthly paycheck from running the front desk at Inn Klein.
"Can I help you sir?" A round-faced teen, all perky ponytail and freckled nose, appeared at his elbow.
"Just stopping in for a few things," the man said. His voice was low, but carried easily.
Maybe one of the new moguls that had taken up residence at what was now known as "Silicon Beach," L.A.'s own hotbed of tech industry that was rivaling the famed valley in northern California. While she stared, his head turned her way. His hand lifted, tipping up his sunglasses.
Their gazes met. Poppy's heart jolted. His eyes were a scorching shade of blue, the color that edged the blades of magical swords in fantasy novels or that you could find at the innermost core of fire. Her temperature climbed, heat radiating from the center of her chest and reaching upward to warm her face. It was embarrassing, she thought, still unable to look away. Because it probably appeared to him she was ogling instead of...instead of passing judgment.
Sue her, she didn't trust men like this. Didn't want to be around them more than she could help in a region that catered to the over-the-top affluent.
That thought got her feet moving again. She gave her back to the stranger, only half listening as the teenage clerk chattered to him about the store specials—veal cutlets and cheesecake baked by the kid's own talented mother—and the big March storm the weather service was predicting.
Poppy smirked at that as she added the rock salt and a small bunch of daisies to her basket. The only thing predictable about spring weather in the mountains was its changeability. Her brother said it was like a cranky woman deprived of chocolate, but since he'd been short-tempered himself since returning from his service with the 10th Mountain Infantry Division, she and her sisters just rolled their eyes at him.
Behind his back.
Looking for candles, she turned a corner, almost plowing into the stranger. She drew back to avoid contact, swaying on her feet. He reached to steady her, but she took a staggering step to the rear, instantly sure to her bones she shouldn't be touched by him.
His hand dropped and he muttered something under his breath. Ducking her head, Poppy scooted past him, then glanced over her shoulder. She couldn't help it.
He was a big man, six-two, maybe, to her five foot four inches. When she'd whipped by, she'd caught his scent. That was expensive, too, but not cologne, no. This was a clean, not cloying smell. Handmade soap, she guessed, triple-milled, and with a mild but lingering note of sandalwood. As she continued to watch him peruse the contents of the shelves, a knot gathered in her belly. Her nerve endings seemed to lift to the surface of her skin, tickling the nape of her neck and sending prickling goose bumps cascading down her spine and racing across her ribs.
Startled by her visceral response, she stood another moment, rooted to the floor. Then she saw him stiffen and knew, just knew, he could feel her regard and was an eyelash away from catching her staring again.
Don't let him catch you at anything! her instincts warned.
And Poppy, suddenly a tiny bit spooked, broke free of her paralysis. She hurried away from the stranger, finished her shopping and rushed to the checkout stand.
With her selections paid for and bagged, she paused outside the store, breathing in the cold, piney air. She lifted her gaze to the snow-covered peaks and felt her pulse settle. Inhaling more calming breaths, she picked her way toward her beat-up four-wheel drive, avoiding potholes and patches of icy-looking pavement.
As she neared her car, something made her glance around.
And there he was, the stranger, emerging from the grocery. Now, even from behind those dark glasses, she knew he was staring at her.
That primal alarm inside of her went off again. Her nerves leaped, her feet tangled on themselves, her arms windmilled and her goods scattered as she fell on her butt—for the second time that day—into a deep, cold puddle.
Damn! Mortified, and aware that color was rising from her neck to her face, she scrambled for her fallen purchases and crammed them into their plastic bag. Then she gathered her feet underneath her, preparing to rise with as much grace as possible.
"Here," that deep voice said.
She allowed her gaze to lift. It snagged on his hand, its wide palm and long fingers outstretched to help her up.
Eyeing it like a dangerous viper, Poppy shook her head and placed a palm on the cold, gritty pavement, pushing off to a stand in one quick move. She relied on herself.
And the only hand she intended to ever reach for, to ever hold, belonged to the little man who also had sole claim to her heart. Mason, who was at this moment probably daydreaming about riding the carousel or chasing down Goofy.
Without a word to the stranger she jumped into her car and drove off, sighing with relief when the grocery store was no longer in her rearview mirror.
Thank God, Poppy thought on another sigh. Though she might still feel the smothering weight of that family curse, right now she had the distinct sense she'd just dodged a bullet.
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Book Description Tantor Audio, 2015. Condition: New. book. Seller Inventory # M1494566559