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Honestly, the things she found in garbage cans. Melody Shaw shook her head at what looked like a deflated blow-up doll wearing a red bikini, then emptied the trash can into the larger bag on her housekeeping cart. It would be one thing to find the doll in a guest room, though still odd, but the fact that someone had stuffed it into the trash can in the vending area left her with so many questions. After all, the Peak View Hot Springs Resort wasn’t exactly a pay-by-the-hour establishment. The guests ran more toward vacationing families of considerable means and couples celebrating special occasions by splurging.
Once upon a time, this was the type of place she might have stayed while on vacation. But that was a lifetime ago.
A lifetime a part of her still held out hope she might possibly be able to reclaim.
But not today. Her immediate future held tasks decidedly less life-altering.
With a sigh, she pushed her cart toward the wing of the building that housed the offices for the resort as well as the Peak View Ranch, which surrounded the resort for miles in each direction. She covered her mouth as she yawned. Normally she just worked in the evenings, but she’d agreed to fill in for a daytime housekeeper who had called in sick that morning. Though she’d tried to take a nap in between her shifts, it was hard to sleep when her next-door neighbor was playing one of those first-person-shooter video games hard core. Thin walls in her apartment building meant she heard every rat-a-tat-tat of his virtual weapon as well as each sound of frustration when his character had gotten killed.
“Don’t do that, girl. You’ll get me started.”
Melody smiled at Ken, the night security guard. “Sorry. Long day.”
“Tell me about it. I had to be up at the crack of dawn this morning to drop off my daughter at the school for a band trip to Billings.”
“Then we are in the same tired boat.”
As Ken continued on down the hall in the opposite direction, his last two words rang in her ears. There was nothing unusual about them. Heck, any time she went to the grocery store or the bank, she was every bit as likely to hear the same. But something about the way he’d said the phrase reminded her of how she used to hear it from almost everyone around her on a daily basis.
Why in the world was the past accompanying her like her shadow tonight? Granted, there wasn’t a day that went by during which she didn’t think about it, ponder the possibility of reclaiming what she’d lost, but a heavier feeling settled in her chest now. The same sense of loss she’d felt when she’d stepped away from the life she’d always known and began another six months ago.
For the umpteenth time, she reminded herself that it did her no good to dwell on the past. Unless something drastic happened to change her current situation, she needed to keep her thoughts and focus directed firmly in front of her—which now meant the cleaning of the office wing. As she turned the corner to where the five offices stood in a row down one side of the hall, she drank in the quiet and solitude.
After cleaning the bathrooms, she started on the offices. Thankfully, she never found anything startling or puzzling in the trash there. Though it was dark outside now, during the day these offices had a gorgeous, expansive view of the Absaroka Mountains to the east. It honestly was like looking at a panoramic postcard come to life. The first four offices went quickly, so she headed for the closed door to Justin McQueen’s office. If it was locked, she could go home and face-plant in her bed for the rest of the night. She was so tired that she didn’t think even Marty’s gaming would keep her awake.
But when she tried the knob to the door, it turned. Okay, she could do this. Justin McQueen, eldest son and head honcho, hadn’t wrecked his office during the entire time she’d worked here, so she hoped he hadn’t chosen today to start. She’d still be home within the hour, hugging her pillow as if it was the love of her life.
And maybe he’d been in the room recently enough that she could still enjoy a whiff of his spicy cologne. The scent didn’t overpower like those worn by men who didn’t understand that a little went a long way, but the first time she’d smelled it everything female in her had stood up and taken notice. It was rare for cologne to affect her that way, but whatever Justin McQueen wore was a definite winner in her book. It didn’t hurt that he was extremely easy on the eyes either. She might not be able to get involved with anyone, but she could still look.
She flipped on the light as she entered the office. When someone moved in her peripheral vision, she yelped. Her free hand went to her chest, where her heart was doing its level best to beat its way to freedom, while her other hand gripped the doorknob so hard she might very well crush it.
Justin McQueen looked nearly as startled as she was, plus a bit confused to boot. She watched as a piece of paper fell back onto the desk from where it’d been stuck to his face. His ridiculously handsome face.
“I’m sorry,” she finally managed to say. “I didn’t know you were in here. I’ll come back later.”
“No, no,” he said, then rubbed a hand over his face as if he could wipe away the foggy aftereffects of sleep. “It’s okay. I’m sorry I startled you. I obviously need to go home if I’m conking out at my desk, probably drooling on myself.”
Melody didn’t move, unsure whether she should wait for him to leave.
He decided for her, motioning her in. “I don’t want to hold you up. Actually, you can just skip in here if you want.”
By the time he said that last bit, she was already in the room. So she dumped the trash as he stared at the array of papers on his desk. After she replaced his trash can, their eyes met.
Oh my, his eyes are pretty.
They were the kind of dark brown that brought to mind the word decadence. Combined with his dark, wavy hair and the five-o’clock shadow he had going on, she wondered if he might be the sexiest man in all of Montana. She certainly wouldn’t bet against it. Why couldn’t he have at least one obvious flaw?
“Can I ask you a question?”
It took way too long for his words to sink into her addled brain, and when they finally did, all she managed to say was, “Huh?”
Thankfully, he didn’t seem to notice her sudden attack of dim-wittedness.
“If you don’t mind, I’d like to pick your brain for a moment.”
“About what?” Despite the fact that she did her best to keep a low profile, to not be noticed, her curiosity got the better of her. And, quite possibly, the sudden desire to soak up the pure handsomeness of him a few moments longer.
“If you were to offer something new to guests, what would it be?”
Why in the world was he asking her, of all people, such a question?
“I’m not sure I’m the best person to ask.” She hated playing the “I’m just a maid” card when, in truth, ideas started firing in her mind as soon as the words left his mouth. It was how she was wired and she missed using that part of herself. Not much call for marketing and business savvy while mopping and vacuuming.
“You might be surprised,” he said. “I’m too close to the question, and you are more likely to hear what guests are saying. Plus, I need a fresh perspective.”
“Maybe one of your brothers or your dad could help you.”
“Not likely. Roman is too busy saving lives, and Wesley…well, let’s just say this isn’t his thing.”
She noticed he didn’t mention his dad. Was that because the man was still in mourning? She’d heard from her co-worker Lynn that the elder Mr. McQueen’s wife had died the previous year and he’d taken it very hard, that he hadn’t been the same since. Was that why she saw the recognizable signs of stress and fatigue in Justin even though he likely tried to hide them? How many times had she looked in the mirror and seen the same thing during her father’s illness and the horror her life had become after his passing?
Feeling empathy and a sudden hint of kinship with Justin, she let down her guard enough to give him an actual answer.
“What about some sort of old-fashioned Christmas package targeted at single people who might not have family to visit?”
People like her.
His gaze locked with hers, and it was all she could do to not gasp. When was the last time someone had really looked at her? And to have it be someone as handsome as Justin McQueen threatened to knock her off her feet, as completely silly as that might sound, especially considering it wasn’t the first time she’d attracted the attention of a good-looking man. She’d been a different person then, however. And the man had never looked as if he had strolled out of a movie about ruggedly handsome cowboys.
“I really like that idea,” Justin said. “You might have saved me.”
That seemed like an odd overstatement, but she allowed herself to enjoy the warmth that filled her at hearing his compliment.
“Glad to help.”
She itched to offer to expand on her idea, but she’d already drawn too much attention to herself. Her new life required she keep a lower profile than she was used to, so much so that she had to remind herself every single day that she was no longer Melody Redmond, heir to Redmond Pharmaceuticals. That Melody had ceased to exist when someone had taken a literal shot at her, nearly erasing her for good. When she’d discovered that her stepmother’s and stepsister’s ties to a Ukrainian crime family led officials to believe she’d continue to be a target, she’d been faced with the toughest decision of her life.
The old Melody disappeared as soon as she agreed to enter the Witness Security Program and walked out the other side a completely different person. The only thing she’d brought from her old life was her first name because she’d been afraid she’d give herself away by not answering to a completely different one. Luckily, the practice was pretty common, even if someone like her—someone who hadn’t committed a crime—entering witness protection wasn’t.
“Well, I better leave you to it,” she said.
“Before you go, do you happen to like chocolate?”
Was this the night of unexpected questions or what?
Justin opened a desk drawer and pulled out a box of high-end chocolates. Her mouth watered at the mere thought of how they would taste on her tongue.
“Vendors send thank-you gifts sometimes, but I’m allergic to chocolate.” He extended the box toward her.
“Wouldn’t you rather give them to some of the other staff?” She gestured in the direction of the offices down the hall.
When he smiled, he somehow got even more drop-dead gorgeous. “You’re a member of the staff, Melody.”
Even though this wasn’t the first time she’d seen Justin or even spoken to him, it was still a bit startling that he actually knew her name. Granted, she was wearing a nametag, but he hadn’t looked at it.
She smiled, hoping it didn’t look as awkward as it felt. “Well, in that case…” She extended her hand and accepted the box. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. Glad to know they’re going to someone who will enjoy them.”
Oh, she would at that. She doubted she’d make it home before biting down into the scrumptiousness she could no longer afford. She couldn’t exactly access her money from before since the government had floated the story that she’d died. And the initial funds they’d given her for living expenses had ceased when she got a job.
She could have tried to find a higher-paying, professional position, but those types of careers came with more attention—exactly what she was trying to avoid. If her stepsister, Angelica, had hired someone to take her out for her part in sending Angelica’s mother Jane to prison, Melody doubted she’d let something as minor as a couple of time zones stop her from finishing the job if she found her.
Chocolates in hand, she gave Justin another quick, shaky smile. “Well, good night.”
“Good night. And thanks again for the idea.”
Feeling more unsteady than she could blame on her lack of sleep, Melody forced herself to exit the office at a normal pace. It wasn’t until she had stored her cart, clocked out for the evening and was sitting in her little hatchback that she felt as if she could breathe normally again.
She leaned her head back against the headrest and closed her eyes. One more day of a life she hadn’t chosen completed. But today had come with a couple of bright spots she hadn’t expected—a smile from a handsome man and a box of delicious chocolates. The former was over in a matter of moments and the latter wouldn’t make it the rest of the week, even if she managed not to scarf them all down without coming up for air.
Melody glanced at the box lying on the passenger seat and decided to try to make the chocolates last, one per day so she’d have something to look forward to after her shifts. She opened the box and took a moment to inhale the scent of rich chocolate. Not able to resist any longer, she chose one and bit down.
Flavor exploded across her tongue, making her taste buds stand up and start singing. Tears suddenly pooled in her eyes at the thought of how she’d once taken such rich, silky pleasure for granted. Never again.
End of Excerpt