“I hate you.” Skylar’s voice was soaked in pubescent drama. “That word isn’t strong enough. Hate.”
“Well, maybe if you’d actually attended school, you would have a broader vocabulary.” Wren Snow didn’t even look at her niece as the tree-lined road that had wound up from the highway opened into the parking lot.
Blue Spruce Lodge loomed before them.
You’re ugly. It was the sort of comeback Sky had been throwing at her so often lately, Wren almost said it on reflex. She was above that, though. She’d been way more mature than Sky at twelve, not a bitter pill like this. No, she had put on her good-girl clothes, kept her grades up, never stayed out past eight, and malevolently plotted ways to murder people in their sleep.
That’s how you got through the growing pains of adolescence. Not by eviscerating the one person who gave a damn about you.
“There’s nothing even here!” Sky switched from hatred to panic and back to accusation. “Are you in the right place? ’Cause there was no mall in that town and you said there was a ski hill here. This is, like, the place people come to get killed in a horror movie.”
“I think the ski hill is…” Wren parked in a spot near the entrance that faced the lodge. She looked around, saw a handful of cars and a lane cast in shadow by the trees off the far end of the parking lot. “Nearby.”
All she could really see was the lodge—which wasn’t ugly. It was too big to be quaint, but it was charming in a Bavarian, gingerbread fairy tale way. The style was dated, but the exterior was a welcoming, buttercup yellow with blue trim. It was the kind of place she would come for a girls’ getaway if she had girlfriends, money and time.
“Oh my Gawd.” Sky folded her arms and sank deeper into her seat. “Why would you even do this to me? I’m not doing it.”
“Skylar.” Wren squeezed the steering wheel and reached for the patience that was a thin, thin blanket. Tattered and worn with more holes than substance.
She tried not to be moved by the brightness coming into Sky’s eyes, or the pearly knobs where the girl’s knuckle bones gleamed on her tight fists, or the way Sky held her mouth in a flat line while her chin crinkled up beneath it.
The anger Skylar was throwing at her was a front. Inside she was terrified. Wren had been sick to her stomach for a month, ever since she had come here pretending she wanted a job and spilled beans that weren’t the magic kind. More like worms out of a can. They were everywhere. Still squiggling.
Was she doing the right thing? She had no idea. She was twenty-four, way too young to be a parent to a kid this age, but Sky wouldn’t stop asking for this. Who is my dad? Why doesn’t he want me? It didn’t matter how much that made Wren feel threatened, taken for granted, inadequate or unwanted. This had to happen.
“It’s six months. If it doesn’t work out, we go back to Utah for Christmas.” That’s why she had come here under the guise of interviewing for a job—so she could get a look at Sky’s father and walk away if it didn’t feel right.
Was this what ‘right’ felt like? No. But it felt necessary. Inevitable. Like the hard work needed to drag a sofa up a flight of stairs before you could sit on it and rest. Or like devoting yourself to your sister’s kid even though you were a kid yourself.
“I’m not going to school here,” Sky declared.
It was the third of June. Wren had pulled Sky out of school to make this move, partly to help out the lodge by arriving as soon as possible, partly thinking there was no point waiting for the end of the year since Sky hadn’t been going to school in Utah, either.
Wren knew better than to have the go-to-school battle until she had to, though. Skylar had to complete and pass online courses before they would know what grade to enroll her in.
Maybe she would decide she liked home schooling and it would be a non-issue.
Ha-ha-ha. Seriously, if people knew what kind of comedian lurked inside this girl-next-door exterior, Wren bet she would have her own HBO special.
Biting back a sigh, Wren faced the battle she did have to have—getting the tween out of the car and into their new ‘home.’
Taking the keys—because she wouldn’t put it past Sky to steal her hatchback, drive it to California, and join a cult—Wren climbed from the car. She stretched, even though they hadn’t been driving that long. They’d stayed Friday and Saturday in Butte, sharing a friend’s pullout couch. Before that, she’d spent weeks of late nights packing or divesting everything they owned. It had been hard to pare down to necessities, but it was an exit strategy of sorts. If this didn’t work out, they didn’t have to go back to Utah. The world was their oyster.
Wren drew a deep breath of the clean mountain air, closing her eyes and letting the sunshine bathe her face. Construction noises sounded in the distance. Birdsong overlaid it with the pulse of rap music and a sudden, sharp whistle.
She opened her eyes and Oh. She started to flush with self-conscious heat even before she fully registered that Trigg Johansson was coming out of the lane and walking toward her. Her brain said, Hot man alert, then she recognized him and a fresher, more startling rush of sexual awareness went through her.
Déjà vu all over again. Damn it.
When she had arrived here in May, he had been sitting in a small, open-topped ATV kind of vehicle right here where she was standing. He’d been talking to another man who’d given her a friendly nod.
She might have said, “Hi.” She honestly couldn’t remember because her brain had been exploding.
Trigg had given her a wolfish look that she had felt in the pit of her belly. She had recognized him, having stalked him online, but even as she had met his gaze with hysterical disbelief, her girl-parts had scanned the mouth-watering selection and ordered the full buffet.
That’s why she had chickened out on speaking to him directly. She had gone inside, ears ringing with her pounding heart. He’d been gone when she walked outside again.
By then, she had secured a tentative job offer and the knowledge that her life would never be the same.
She had dreaded seeing him after that. Not just because she’d seen firsthand that he was a player. Of course he was a player. He had knocked up her sister when he was seventeen. He probably had a whole flock of Skylars out there.
But who could blame Mandy or any of the women he’d conquered? He was built like a god and moved like a cat, as though he knew how to use each of his muscles exactly as intended. He wore jeans and a T-shirt today and had light stubble the same color as his dark brows. His hair had been in a man-bun the last time she saw him. Today it was shaved into business on the sides, rumpled bedhead on top. His eyes were a sharp, mountain-lake blue, his smile flat and tense. Forced.
That vaguely hostile, hard expression made her heart slip and judder while her limbs felt loose and lubricated.
The way he had smiled at her the first time had been very inviting and approving.
The second time, when they’d all met in a lawyer’s office for twenty minutes, he’d worn a suit and hadn’t smiled at all.
She wasn’t able to find a smile right now. She was standing here like a virgin on her wedding night, throat dry, waiting for him to come to her.
Something nudged her in the crotch, scaring the shit out of her.
“Oh my God!” She jerked back and clipped her hip on the driver’s side mirror. Pain streaked through her hip bone while she scrabbled for balance by grasping at the warm roof of the car.
“Murphy. Sit.” Trigg stopped behind her taillight and snapped his fingers by his thigh.
The dog let his haunches drop, but stayed in front of her, tail swirling like an electric beater, sweeping through bits of gravel on the concrete. His pink tongue lolled out of his black-lipped mouth and he cocked his head at her. His ears and face were black, but he had a white stripe that came down between his eyes. The stripe ended in speckles above his black nose. There were more speckles on his white chest and legs. Border collie and heeler maybe, with Labrador eyes that offered instant and eternal love.
“Quite the welcoming committee.” She smoothed her hand down the short, silky fur on his hard head.
“We usually charge extra for that, but since you’re a VIP…” Trigg shoved his hands into the front pockets of his jeans. She could tell they were curled into fists. The mask of tension across his face bore an eerie resemblance to the one stonewalling in the passenger seat of her car.
His gaze took in her jeans and T-shirt, both clean this morning. Her sneakers could use an update, but keeping Sky in extra-curriculars had taken most of her disposable cash the last few years. Anything to keep that kid out of trouble—not that it had worked.
Would this work? Would Sky magically turn into a polite, well-adjusted, academic teenager with ambitions beyond smoking cigarettes behind the mall?
Probably not, but Wren had to try. This was her last resort. See what I did there? Because the lodge was situated so deep in the mountains of Montana it felt like they were at the end of the earth. Last. Resort. Get it, Judd Apatow? Why aren’t you calling me?
“Is…?” He sidled his gaze to the car.
“Nervous, I guess.” She knew exactly what she was doing with that dropped glove.
The passenger door flung open and Sky stood up to send her a how-dare-you glare across the roof of the hatchback.
At the sound, Murphy shot around the car, through the shrubs. Sky jolted with surprise and bent out of sight.
Wren looked back at Trigg and caught him giving the fit of her jeans an assessment. She waited for his gaze to come back and scowled a Really?
She didn’t care how hot he was. This wasn’t the time. Plus, he had had sex with her sister. His kid was right there. Remember? Sailor?
His mouth curled at one corner. “The dog slobbered on your leg.”
She looked down. Fantastic.
Trigg didn’t apologize for Murphy’s lack of manners. If he started, he’d never stop. Besides, he could barely form words these days that weren’t every shade of blue.
He’d had a month to get used to the idea that he had a kid, but he was still trying to wrap his brain around the reality of it. A daughter. He was nowhere near ready for kids. He had a million other things to accomplish before ‘settling down.’ And man, did he hate that expression. Settle down. It made him feel trapped just thinking it.
She wasn’t a baby, either. Not a toddler or a tyke. A freaking twelve-year-old girl.
Why did she have to be a girl? Not that he thought it was more manly to produce a son. It was just too mind-bending to be the father of a girl with a face like an angel who was starting to grow into a woman’s body. From the time he’d been Sky’s age, when his balls had dropped and his stinger stood up, he’d been nothing but a bumbler to a flower. He loved girls and they loved him back.
Did he objectify them? He didn’t think so. Not on purpose. He was capable of platonic friendships. He trained and worked alongside women without harassing them. But flirting and charming were his go-to methods of communication. It wasn’t so much that he was forever on the prowl as making sure they knew he’d be receptive. If that meant he saw a lot of action, well that was a win-win, wasn’t it?
That’s what he’d been thinking the day he’d seen Wren arrive to interview. She’d stared him down as she walked past and if Nate’s granddad hadn’t needed help, Trigg would have shown her his medal collection upstairs.
He still thought Wren was cute as hell in a wholesome, mousy way. She wasn’t blonde or bubbly the way he recalled Mandy to be. Wren was a solemn brunette with a ponytail. Little wisps fell across her forehead and drew curved lines to her cheeks. Her mouth was a plump, round pout, her eyes slate gray. Her skin was gorgeous, like powder in the high country. The rest of her was neatly packaged on a five-five frame, feminine without being voluptuous. Cute.
She was nowhere near as harmless as she looked, though. Nope. She’d been planting a bomb that day. One that had started ticking that evening and went off a couple weeks later when the DNA results came back. It had blown off his legs, forcing him to retire from competing. He was livid about that and knew he should blame his own dick, but blaming her felt infinitely better.
Would retiring be worth it? How could it be? His mother might have aspired to cookie-cutter fantasies when he’d been a kid, but they weren’t that kind of family. You sure as shit didn’t find your bliss by settling in any manner, especially by settling down.
“Is this your dog?” Sky straightened.
He realized he was staring at Wren’s thighs again while she used a tissue to try to swipe the streak off her jeans.
“Yeah.” He looked to Sky over the roof of the car and felt like the ground shifted. Her eyes were weirdly familiar. That was the first thing he’d noticed about her. It was like looking at old photos of his mom, when she’d been a stewardess. There was something in Sky’s chin, too. It was strong, like his dad’s had been.
“What’s his name?”
“Murphy.” King of the wingmen.
“I didn’t know you had a dog.” She looked at Wren as if this was information she should have been given.
“I didn’t know, either,” Wren said.
“You want some help bringing in your things?” Trigg asked.
“Sure.” Wren came toward him, faltered, waited for him to step back even though there was plenty of room to get by.
Sexual awareness tingled through him.
Women reacted to him. He knew it and liked it. But this was not the time or place for his libido to twitch awake. He ignored the stir, dragged his gaze off her ass—which was sweet as a valentine and deserved to be admired if not fondled and stroked—and glared resentfully across the parking lot.
Wren opened the hatch, caught whatever nearly tumbled out, and glanced at him. The small space was stuffed with luggage, boxes, a bag full of bedding and a milk crate full of gaming stuff.
Trigg waited while she took the laptop bag then grabbed the two biggest bags.
Sky sent her aunt a glower as she reached into the back seat and shouldered a rainbow-colored backpack. She hugged a pillow and followed them on scuffling feet.
A handful of guests were in the lobby and dining room, but the lunch rush hadn’t started and the lodge only had one floor open to guests. By this time next year, the resort he was developing with his brother would have summer activities like mountain bike trails and maybe a zip line. For now, most of the guests were contractors hired to construct buildings and install lifts. A lot of them arrived Monday and checked out on Friday, which made for quiet weekends.
Lina, one of the lodge employees, was behind the coffee bar. She eyed Wren as they passed, checking out the new manager.
The manager’s suite was on the ground floor. Aside from the penthouse his brother Rolf was finishing for himself and Glory on the top floor, this was the only room with a kitchenette. There was also a small table with two chairs and his mother had crammed a love seat against the wall, facing the TV on the dresser.
As Trigg closed the door behind them, the one into the manager’s office opened. Marvin came in beaming a smile brighter than the first day of summer. “You’ve arrived.”
Trigg’s mother had given Marvin quite the makeover in the last few months. Gone was the disheveled professor Trigg had met two years ago. He’d been replaced by a hotelier in a bespoke suit. Trigg liked the old fart either way—even though he was banging his mom.
Trigg had still been absorbing that the fifty-something pair were shacking up like teenagers when news of his blessed event with Sky had come along. Then there’d been a crisis with the resort and his abrupt retirement from the snowboard circuit. Trigg liked to think he rode the bumps like a pro, but he had a lot to deal with these days.
“Wren, it’s good to see you again.” Marvin shook her hand, warm and fatherly. “You must be Sky. I’m Marvin Cormer. Welcome to Blue Spruce Lodge.”
“Mr. Cormer owns Blue Spruce Lodge. He’s my new boss,” Wren explained to Sky.
“Marvin, please,” Marvin insisted. “I want you to feel at home. We’re one big happy family here.”
And people called him a dreamer, Trigg thought.
“Is this, like, a handicapped room or something?” Sky eyed the extra-wide door, brow quirking with pained dismay.
“We made this wheelchair accessible last month. It still needs to be fitted with a roll-in shower and lower sinks. We’ll remove this door into the manager’s office, too.”
Sky shifted her attention to the twin beds with a narrow night table between them. “I don’t get my own room?”
“It’s fine.” Wren smiled benignly.
“We’ve had a lot of discussions on how best to accommodate you,” Marvin said, clasping his hands in front of him and smiling his magnanimous smile.
They had, in fact, talked this shit to death. Deciding where Sky and Wren would sleep was the tip of the iceberg. How Sky’s existence affected Wikinger, which was the family corporation, and Whiskey Jack, the unfinished resort, along with Rolf and Glory’s upcoming wedding, had all been lengthy negotiations. Even whether to give Wren the manager job had been a freaking referendum. When his mother had started setting hard limits on whether she would be called ‘Grandma,’ Trigg had folded and walked away.
“We’ll work out alternate arrangements if you decide to stay into the new year,” Marvin said. “The lodge is fully booked for the wedding next month—”
“Who’s getting married?” Sky looked up from petting Murphy.
“My brother,” Trigg said.
“To my daughter,” Marvin added, shirt expanding with his swell of pride. “July fourth.”
It was a dumb day for a wedding. A Wednesday. But Glory wanted it and Rolf had backed her up. Trigg had since figured out it was the anniversary of their first shag. Glory was a romantic while Rolf was keeping his anniversary dates easy to remember.
“Hmmph.” Sky’s interest evaporated. “I thought it was, like, a celebrity or something, since they booked the whole hotel.”
Nice one, kid. Trigg made a mental note to repeat that to Rolf, the four-time Olympic gold medalist marrying the bestselling romance author.
“Several guests are quite famous. You can talk to your—” Marvin cleared his throat. “Um, Vivien, that is, Trigg’s mother.” Marvin glanced at Trigg the way Murphy had when he’d got his paw caught in his own collar.
“Mom thinks it should be Sky’s decision whether to tell people what’s going on.” Trigg squeezed the knotted muscles in the back of his neck, then gave the back of his head a quick scratch. It was freshly cut and still felt bristly and unfamiliar. Fucking meetings with the board. He and Rolf had been called on the carpet for firing Basco Construction, as if Wikinger wasn’t their company to run as they saw fit. Theirs to protect when they discovered a fox in the henhouse.
He brushed aside worrying about that right now, dropping his hand to his side.
“Mom said it’s a lot to get used to and we don’t need staff asking questions,” he explained. “That’s why we’re not all here to greet you. Mom thought that would be overwhelming. She wants you to come up for lunch where you can meet and talk in private.”
Mom wanted the home court advantage.
“That’s thoughtful. Thank you.” Wren turned a smile on Sky that said, Isn’t that nice?
Trigg didn’t know the definition of ‘baleful,’ but had a feeling that was what Sky sent back.
He wished he knew more about how all this had come about. Between shock and rearranging his life, Trigg hadn’t communicated much with Wren. Their lawyers had handled most of it and they’d only emailed about logistics.
He wanted to know, Why now? Why not years ago, when Mandy had died? Why hadn’t Mandy contacted him when she decided to have Sky? Wren had been on her own with Sky since she was nineteen. That must have been hard as hell.
Even so, Wren had been adamant that she wanted a job so she could continue supporting herself and her niece. That’s what the visit to the lawyer had been. A brief introduction of father and daughter along with signing paperwork that basically said Trigg could set aside his entire fortune for Sky if he wanted to, but Wren kept full custody. She would only accept a nominal monthly amount for child support.
Wren had been prepared to stay in Utah if Trigg didn’t want to get involved. She had also offered to find work in Haven, which was the town closest to the resort.
Sky wanted to get to know her dad, though. If Trigg had continued training and competing, he would have been gone more than he was here. Even working to rebuild the hill with Rolf was a lot of demanding hours. If Sky wanted to get to know him, living here at the lodge was their best opportunity.
Did he want to get to know her? From what Wren had said to Marvin last month, Sky had been ‘acting out.’ How? Did Wren expect him to turn into a dad and sort that shit? Because she was barking up the wrong tree. He didn’t know anything about being a parent and he’d been a hellion of a son.
He supposed he did want to know more about both of them, but this entire situation was so far beyond anything he knew how to deal with, something in him had locked down and wouldn’t budge. He’d seen Rolf do this a thousand times and wanted to punch him every time, but here he was, digging in with all his strength, unable to soften, reach out, or bend. His ability to communicate had devolved into primitive grunts and barely restrained aggression.
“Vivien is organizing the wedding. She can tell you about the guest list.” Marvin circled back to the topic that consumed everyone these days. Forget trying to build a resort or the fact Trigg had a kid. Did anyone have a color suggestion for the candle in the centerpieces?
“We’re in room one-twenty,” Marvin continued. “I’ll let Vivien know you’re here. But first, may I help with luggage?”
“That would be great. Thanks.” Wren offered Marvin what looked like her first natural smile, jangled her keys and walked out.
Leaving Trigg alone with his kid.
End of Excerpt