He’d found her.
He’d finally located India Gale, the woman presumably responsible for ruining his mother’s life. He’d done his homework, but he’d still had a tough time tracking her down. For a woman who lived in the public eye, he’d uncovered very little about her private life.
Lucas Talbot, recently discharged from the Army, had been back in the United States for barely two months, and most of that time had been spent in New York City and Maine, where her trail had gone cold. He’d had a lucky break when he’d learned she had recently left for Montana, presumably to check out the luxury mountain house she’d acquired as part of the accident settlement.
His family’s house.
Just the thought of her living in the home where he had spent the happiest summers of his life galled him. True, he hadn’t spent much time in Glacier Creek since he’d graduated college twelve years ago, but he made a point of returning whenever he had the chance to catch up with his two best friends, Jamie Colter and Dylan McCafferty, who both lived in the small Montana town.
The expansive, timber-frame house that had been his stepfather’s pride and joy, and where Lucas had spent every summer of his childhood, had sat mostly closed for the past ten years. Lucas couldn’t remember when he’d last been inside the house, but that was beside the point. He could handle the house reverting to anyone but her.
Now he sat at a booth in Red’s Diner, his coffee untouched, and watched through the window as two women stood talking on the sidewalk across the street. He wasn’t much interested in the younger woman, who looked to be no older than his college-aged sisters. His attention was solely for her companion. Not that he could see much of the other woman beneath her wide-brimmed sunhat, dark glasses, and baggy shirt. Even her signature mane of long, black curls was noticeably absent. But there was no mistaking the haughty tilt of her chin, and that’s what gave her away. Despite all her efforts to avoid detection, Lucas had finally located India Gale.
He looked again at the magazine article he held in his hand, creased and nearly illegible from repeated folding and handling. The photograph, taken a year earlier, had been clipped from the society pages of The New Yorker. It showed a distinguished man in his late sixties escorting a striking younger woman with dark eyes and corkscrew curls, who beamed at the camera. Dressed in a neck-plunging cocktail dress that displayed her gorgeous cleavage, she had a killer body and mile-long legs. Unbidden, Lucas had an image of those legs wrapped around his waist, of the lustrous hair fisted in his hand. He frowned at the traitorous thought and shifted uncomfortably in his seat. He studied the clipping. Her smile was wide, her expression guileless, but Lucas knew better.
As the creative director of Brazen Magazine, India Gale led a lavish lifestyle. The tabloids and society pages adored her, claiming she was both the beauty and brains behind the popular women’s magazine, responsible for pushing the readership into the stratosphere. But Lucas knew the truth behind her success; she exploited her position and her sex to garner favors and take advantage of unsuspecting men with money and influence.
Men like his stepfather, Martin Howden, a philanthropist, financier, and founding executive of a multibillion-dollar media and entertainment conglomerate, headquartered in New York City.
Late stepfather, he reminded himself.
Lucas had been working a special ops assignment in Yemen when the car wreck had happened. He hadn’t been able to return for the funeral, but to hear his mother explain it, Martin would still be alive if not for that woman. The medical examiner had concluded that Martin, who had suffered from diabetes, had developed hypoglycemia or severe diabetic shock, while driving. He’d likely lost consciousness, which had resulted in the accident.
None of that mattered to Meredith.
A year after the accident, grief and anger still consumed her. She’d become a wrathful, bitter woman who wanted someone to pay for what she had lost, and her sights were set on India Gale, who had been a passenger in Martin’s car on the night of the accident.
Now Lucas watched as the two women made their way slowly down the sidewalk, pausing to admire a storefront beneath a bright blue and white striped awning. A breeze rippled the white fabric of India’s shirt, briefly molding it against her body, and then pulling it away again, but not before he saw the lush curves hidden beneath.
Frowning, he turned his gaze past them for a moment. Small, quaint art galleries, gift shops, and restaurants lined Main Street. A long, white banner had been strung across the road, with the words Glacier Creek Harvest Fest emblazoned across it, and beneath that the dates of the festival. Where he sat, he could even see the old mercantile building where Adrenaline Adventures was housed, and where Jamie and Dylan were likely working.
Two blocks further down, the road ended in a small parking area, before it transitioned into a long, wide pier that extended out over the lake. Small groups of unsuspecting tourists ambled along the old wooden platform as gulls wheeled and dipped overhead, hoping for a handout or an opportunity to pilfer a french fry or other bit of food. Further out, the lake rolled in wind-driven swells, capped in ruffles of white beneath a blue, cloudless sky. Majestic mountains ringed the lake, some capped in snow even now, during the first warm days of autumn. It wouldn’t be long before the shorter days and cooler nights transformed the green hues of summer to brilliant shades of red, yellow, and gold. He could see the first hint of the spectacular colors to come.
Returning his attention to the women, he saw they still lingered in front of the shop. Lucas stood and pulled his wallet from his back pocket and tossed a few dollars onto the table, before carefully folding the newspaper clipping and tucking it back inside the billfold.
“Leaving so soon? You haven’t even touched your coffee.”
He glanced up to see a waitress standing by his table with a steaming coffeepot in one hand. Her name tag read Audrey. She was young, probably no more than twenty, and now she gave him a wide smile.
“Are you from around here, Audrey?” he asked conversationally. She was young enough that even if she was, she wouldn’t remember him.
“I was born and raised right here in Glacier Creek.” She indicated the coffeepot. “I’m just back for the summer job. I go to school in Oregon. Are you here on vacation?”
“You could say that,” he replied, and put another couple of bills on the table. “Thanks for the coffee.”
Outside, the fresh, mountain air was a welcome balm to the slow churn of emotions he felt when he saw India Gale.
He stood for a moment and inhaled deeply. He hadn’t been back in Glacier Creek in nearly ten years, and part of him just wanted to kick back with a cold beer and absorb the beauty that surrounded him. But he was here to do a job, however unwillingly.
He just wanted answers.
He’d promised his mother that much, at least, and no matter how reluctant he was to pursue this, he’d see it through to the end. His plan was to observe India and make his own assessment. If he could engage her and obtain the information he needed, even better.
He’d read the police report. He understood the facts of what had happened the night of the accident. What he didn’t know was why his stepfather had been in a car with India Gale. His mother believed they had been having an affair, and she blamed the younger woman for the horrific car wreck that had claimed her husband’s life, despite the fact India Gale had been a passenger in the car. She hadn’t been the one who’d driven the sports car into a utility pole.
Lucas thought his mother might have been able to get past her grief if India’s lawyers had only gone after Martin’s insurance money. Instead, they had gone after Martin’s personal estate, claiming wrongful injury and damages, as well as pain and suffering for their client. Martin’s insurance money should have been enough, but the lawyers had gone after his substantial bank accounts. In order to avoid a protracted trial, unwanted media attention, and hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees, they had settled out of court. India Gale had walked away with a financial settlement of fifty million dollars, and the deed to the Montana house.
Lucas didn’t begrudge India the money for her pain and suffering. His stepfather had been behind the wheel of the sports car that night, and India had remained in the hospital for months following the accident. He didn’t know what specific injuries she’d suffered, but acknowledged she was entitled to compensation. But looking at her now, Lucas couldn’t see any lingering evidence of injury. She seemed whole and healthy.
His mother, Meredith Howden, believed herself to be the true victim in this entire, sordid affair. Not only had she lost her husband, she’d also lost everything she’d believed him to be—a faithful and loving partner. Then the lawyers had come knocking, and she’d been forced to liquidate assets.
She’d kept the house in the Hamptons and a vacation house in California but had finally offered to turn over the deed to the house in Montana, valued at more than twenty million dollars. His mother had disliked both Montana and the massive timber-frame house and had spent as little time there as possible when Lucas was a kid, so giving up the house probably hadn’t been all that difficult for her. But Lucas wasn’t about to judge his mother; both her pain and her loss had been real. He just wished she hadn’t asked him to act as her private investigator in determining what India Gale’s relationship had been with his stepfather.
Lucas loved his mother, but he’d never been blind to her faults. As a parent, she’d been mostly absent, relying on a revolving staff of au pairs to raise both him and his much younger sisters. In retrospect, he hadn’t suffered. The nannies he remembered had been young and active, and they had at least made the effort to play with him and teach him the things his mother didn’t have the time or inclination for. She’d been more interested in her next spa treatment or social event.
Martin, on the other hand, had taken an active role in his life, from the time he’d married Lucas’s mother when Lucas was just five. Suddenly, there were fishing trips and baseball games, even if the fishing was performed from the stern of a private yacht, and the baseball games were luxury box seats at Yankee Stadium, right behind home plate. Martin Howden may have been a billionaire with a corporation to run, but he always made time for his kids.
Lucas still missed the old man.
Now he paused on the sidewalk and pretended to read a tourist brochure of the region, while eyeing the two women. He knew the younger woman was India’s sister, Katie O’Hearn. Half-sister, to be precise. As he’d dug into India’s past, he’d learned that her mother, Joanna, had been married three times. She’d had India with her first husband, Alejandro Cordoza before the marriage had ended in divorce. Fourteen years later, she’d had Katie with John O’Hearn. Her third marriage, to Ray Sullivan, had lasted only a year before it, too, had ended in divorce. Now he watched as the two women entered a small shop. Even from where he stood, he heard the soft jangle of bells as they opened the door and disappeared inside.
He withdrew a pair of aviator sunglasses from his shirt pocket and slid them on. The polarized lenses sharpened the colors around him, so that the lake seemed impossibly blue and the flowers that spilled over the window boxes exploded with vibrant color. Glacier Creek was just the sort of pretty, mountain resort town that his younger sisters would adore, but they had been little more than toddlers the last time they’d visited Montana. Off the beaten path, with an abundance of charm and picturesque beauty, the little town had a dreamy quality to it, as if the everyday, ugly problems of the world couldn’t intrude here.
Lucas had news…they could, and they would.
Crossing the street, he pretended an interest in the shop windows that he passed: an art gallery with enormous paintings of blue and red poppies, a bath and body shop with stacks of handmade soaps and lotions, and a consignment shop jammed full of eclectic vintage finds.
He paused at the door where the two women had entered. A verdigris copper mermaid hung suspended from the ceiling behind the glass, her hands beckoning shoppers to come inside. Beneath the copper mermaid was an artful display of jewelry and trinkets, small handbags and pretty scarves. He pushed open the door, and the bells overhead tinkled.
Inside, the air was fragrant with a light, floral scent and upbeat pop music played overhead. Lucas removed his sunglasses. The shop was long and narrow, with wide pine flooring and exposed brick walls, and so many display racks of feminine accessories and knickknacks that Lucas felt like a bull in a china shop. He was too big, too broad to move easily amongst the fragile items. He heard the murmur of soft voices at the back of the store and made his way carefully in that direction.
India Gale and her younger sister stood with their backs to him, inspecting a glass curio filled with jewelry. India had removed her hat, and Lucas saw with a sense of surprise that she had cut her long hair, and now it sat tightly around her head in short, springy curls. The collar of her cotton shirt had been turned up, covering the back of her neck, and gold earrings swung from her earlobes, catching the light as she bent to peer more closely at something.
“May I help you?”
Lucas turned to see a saleswoman smiling at him from behind a counter. He didn’t miss how her eyes lit with interest as her gaze swept over him. She wore a bright summer dress beneath a lightweight sweater, and she preened as she beamed at him.
“Yes,” he replied gratefully. “I’m looking for gifts for my sisters.”
“I think I can help you,” she said, her smile widening as she came around from behind the counter. “How old are they?”
“They’ll turn twenty in a few weeks. They’re twins.”
“How fun, and how nice for them to have such a thoughtful brother,” she enthused. “Where are you visiting from?”
“California.” That was partly true, if you considered his family had a vacation home in California, but Lucas didn’t actually live there. He looked sideways at India and her sister, but aside from a brief glance in his direction, they pretended not to notice him. But as Lucas turned his attention to the saleswoman, he could feel India watching him. Awareness crawled across his skin and made his muscles tighten reflexively.
“I love California.” The saleswoman had stopped at a rack of clothing, and now she pulled out a soft cardigan sweater in a shade of deep green, hemmed with tiny copper beads. “This is one of our best sellers. They come in a variety of colors, and they’re made locally by a woman who raises her own alpacas.”
Lucas raised his eyebrows. “An alpaca sweater?” He infused just a touch of bemusement into his tone. “I don’t know…I’m not even sure what size they are. If I get them something too big, they’ll accuse me of calling them fat.”
He thought he heard a small snort of laughter from the younger woman as she snuck a quick peek at him from over her shoulder. He jumped on it.
“Excuse me,” he said, taking a step toward India and her sister. “I’m sorry to intrude, but maybe you can help me.” He deliberately didn’t look at India, but instead focused his attention on her sister. “I have two sisters just about your age, and I have no idea what to get for them. Is there anything here that you might recommend?”
From the corner of his eye he saw India give the girl a sharp nudge with her foot, and was certain that if he were to look at her, she would be glaring daggers at him. Fortunately, her sister seemed not to care. She turned fully toward him, a smile still curving her lips. Her hair was a pretty shade of strawberry blonde, and up close he could see her eyes were blue. A smattering of freckles across the bridge of her nose made her seem even younger than he’d first thought.
“Well, I think jewelry is always a safe bet.” She stepped back and indicated the glass shelf they had been studying. “I really love the silver and turquoise bracelets, and the earrings are super cute, too. Maybe something like that?”
He leaned forward to get a closer look, aware that India edged away from him, but not before he caught her scent. She smelled like light, floral soap and something else; something deeper and more potent. He forced himself to focus on the jewelry, but was acutely aware of her nearness. He hadn’t yet looked directly at her.
“Hmm,” he mused. “Those are pretty, and I think you’re right; my sisters will love them.” Straightening, he looked at the saleswoman. “I’ll take two of the bracelets. You can choose which ones. Or better yet,” he said, turning back to India’s sister, “why don’t you choose for me?”
At that, India did turn toward him, a frown furrowing her smooth brow. “I don’t think—”
“This one,” the younger woman said quickly. She selected a bracelet and held it out to him. “And this one. They’re similar, but still different enough to tell them apart.”
“Like the twins,” Lucas said, letting her drop the two bracelets into his open palm. “Thank you. I think my sisters will love them.”
He included both women in his smile, but when his eyes met India’s, a small shock reverberated through him. He’d been expecting the woman whose photos he’d seen in The New Yorker—a woman who exuded self-confidence and strength. A woman who commanded attention simply by walking into a room. A woman whose smile had brought countless men to their knees—including his stepfather. He’d expected her to be beautiful, but he hadn’t expected to have an actual physical reaction to her. He felt as if he’d been punched hard in the solar plexus. For a moment, he couldn’t breathe.
She was taller than he’d originally realized, with fine bone structure and flawless skin. Gale wasn’t her real surname. She’d been born India Gale Cordoza, but used Gale as her professional name. Her father was Brazilian, and Lucas could see her heritage in her wide dark eyes and tawny skin tone, and the elegant slash of black eyebrows and thick lashes. Her dark hair in tight, shining curls around her head emphasized the delicate bone structure of her face and neck. Her mouth was lush, and for just an instant Lucas imagined what she could do with those pillowy lips.
In the brief instant when their gazes collided, Lucas saw something flash in her dark eyes, before she swiftly averted her gaze to pull her sunglasses from her pocketbook. Disapproval?
“Excuse us, please,” she said coolly. Taking the younger woman by the elbow, she steered her toward the door.
“India,” her sister complained, “I really wanted to look at the rest of the jewelry.”
“Another time,” she replied shortly.
“Thanks again,” Lucas called after them.
India paused at the door and cast him one last look before she slid her sunglasses on and stepped outside, closing the door firmly behind her.
“Here, let me take those for you.” The saleswoman retrieved the two bracelets from his hand and moved behind the counter. “These were also made by a local artisan, and I’ll include a small info card about the artist and the jewelry.”
Lucas was still watching the two women as they stood outside on the sidewalk, exchanging words. They were talking about him, and he could almost guess what they were saying.
“Did I offend her?” he asked, turning back to the saleswoman. “I didn’t mean to.”
The girl shrugged. “I’m sure you didn’t. She just seems really protective of her sister.”
“How do you know they’re sisters?” Lucas knew they were sisters, but wondered how well known the two women were in town.
“They’ve been into the shop a couple of times now, once with their mother,” the sales clerk said. “I was surprised when I realized they were sisters, because they look nothing alike, but there are so many blended families out there, I’m guessing they have different fathers.”
“So, they live here in town.” He said it as a statement. He knew where they were staying, but was curious if India had made any impression on the people of Glacier Creek. Did they realize who she was? Did they know she was staying at the Howden property, or the circumstances that had brought her there?
The saleswoman shrugged. “I don’t know. I’m guessing they’re tourists. Like you.” She held out the small bag. “Will there be anything else?”
Lucas paid for his purchase and accepted the bag. “No, thanks.”
By the time he stepped outside, India and her sister were nowhere in sight. Lucas blew out a hard breath and turned in the direction of the mercantile building and Adrenaline Adventures. He’d been in town for just two days, but if Jamie or Dylan realized he’d returned and hadn’t made the store his first stop, he’d never hear the end of it. Especially since he was part owner of the extreme adventure business.
He still needed to figure out just how much he was willing to share with his friends about his true reason for returning to Glacier Creek. He didn’t want to involve them any more than necessary, but neither did he want them advertising his return. He was counting on the fact that most people wouldn’t remember him as the rich kid who had spent his summers in Glacier Creek, living in the Howden house. If anyone asked, he was simply Lucas Talbot, former Army Special Ops, here to catch up with his two best friends and finally take some responsibility as the third partner in Adrenaline Adventures.
No one needed to know any more than that.
End of Excerpt