The Patron

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The Patron

Emerson Pass Contemporaries, Book 2

Regular price $15.99
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Emerson Pass Contemporaries · billionaire romance · Colorado · historical romance · small town

“Every time I read a Tess Thompson novel I think, it cannot get better, and yet this novel could possibly be her best work. Readers would remember Crystal and Garth from a previous novel. Now they get to centre stage and what a performance. The plot is fluid, the characters engaging and the narrative easy and effortless. Absolutely worth five glorious stars.” —Cecly Ann Mitchell, author of Three Rings

She’s afraid to take risks. He’s an incurable daredevil. When tragedy throws them together, will it spark a lasting devotion?

Crystal Whalen isn’t sure why she should go on. Two years after her husband’s death on a ski trip, she’s devastated when a fire destroys her quiet Colorado mountain home. And when she can’t keep her hands off the gorgeous divorcé who’s become her new temporary housemate, it only feeds her grief and growing guilt.

Garth Welty won’t be burned again. After his ex-wife took most of his money, the downhill-skiing Olympic medalist is determined to keep things casual with the sexy woman he can’t resist. But the more time they spend with each other, the harder it is to deny his burgeoning feelings.

As Crystal’s longing for the rugged man’s embrace grows, she worries that his dangerous lifestyle will steal him away. And although Garth believes she’s his perfect girl, the specter of betrayal keeps a tight grip on his heart.

— scroll down to read book sample —

REVIEWS

“This book grabbed me at the start and kept me reading and turning pages till I reached the end. It moves along at a good pace making for an enjoyable read. The characters are amazing seem so real that you feel as though you know them. The story keeps you interested and reading till the end. This is a must-read book that needs to be on your TBR list, you will not be sorry that you did.” ★★★★★ Reader Review 

“Master storyteller Tess Thompson has seamlessly woven several of her series into this book...[Tess] keeps you turning the pages until the very end and there is always one more surprise around the corner.” ★★★★★ Reader Review 

“The Patron is such a heartwarming healing read. I loved this one so much. I love being back in Emerson Pass with all the faces we love both past and present making an appearance. This is Garth and Crystal's book. I loved getting know both Garth and Crystal more in this one. Both have suffered pain and loss in some way or another. They heal each other in ways they never expected. There is some magical forces going on in this town that bring people together, bring on forgiveness and help rebuild relationships. I love all the changes Crystal goes through even as secrets from the past are coming out. You feel the heart and soul of Emerson Pass as you read this. You feel the love that passes through all the couples featured in this one. You see a shining light on Garth and Crystal as they both move on from the ghost that they are chasing. All the love is just beautiful. I love how Garth never gives up on Crystal and shows her it is okay to move on. The fire may have destroyed parts of the town but it brought everyone together again. I could not get enough of this one. You need to one click this one now.” ★★★★★ Reader Review 

“The Patron is a [second] chance love story for more than [one] couple and is a great read. Tess Thompson has worked her literary magic again…” ★★★★★ Reader Review 

“Tess Thompson does it every time with this continuing Emerson Pass series. I have adored meeting each character…Stupendous story…love, love Emerson Pass…” ★★★★★ Reader Review 

“This is also a story of family and friends that are family. It is a lovely well written book, that will leave you feeling more hopeful about people and life after reading it.” ★★★★★ Reader Review 

“Again, Tess Thompson does not let us down. The Patron is a wonderfully readable book. Ms. Thompson again casts likable characters who seem so real. They are accomplished and confident but have the same self-doubts we all do. There are some long held family misunderstandings and secrets revealed. I highly recommend this book and all of the Emerson Pass series, historical and contemporary. I love that Ms. Thompson brings history forward in the contemporary books. She also added a sweet surprise at the end.” ★★★★★ Reader Review 

“Another great story about two people in the town of Emerson Pass, Colorado.” ★★★★★ Reader Review 

“A must read and one of my favorites by Tess Thompson. I love how she blends the families from her historical novel into the contemporary books. And the letters are an added bonus. And a special part of this book was the recipes in the back. Tess had asked her readers for family recipes and stories about them, and I was so excited to see the one I submitted. What a special author to her fans.” ★★★★★ Reader Review 

“This was another winner. I love these characters. Once you start this series you keep reading wonderful each book with people you would like to know and love. This author gives you a wonderful storylines and a great read. She makes you cry for them. I highly recommend all het books and different series.” ★★★★★ Reader Review 

“I have enjoyed reading about Emerson Pass and the people who lived there. There is always something happening and a problem to solve. There is never a dull moment which makes the book interesting. The whole series has been a great read. I can hardly wait for the next book to come out.” ★★★★★ Reader Review 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Tess Thompson is the USA Today Bestselling and award-winning author of contemporary and historical Romantic Women’s Fiction with nearly 40 published titles. When asked to describe her books, she could never figure out what to say that would perfectly sum them up until she landed on, Hometowns and Heartstrings.

She’s married to her prince, Best Husband Ever, and is the mother of their blended family of four kids and five cats. Best Husband Ever is seventeen months younger, which qualifies Tess as a Cougar, a title she wears proudly. Her Bonus Sons are young adults with pretty hair and big brains like their dad. Daughters, better known as Princess One and Two, are teenagers who make their mama proud because they’re kind. They’re also smart, but a mother shouldn’t brag.

Tess loves lazy afternoons watching football, hanging out on the back patio with Best Husband Ever, reading in bed, binge-watching television series, red wine, strong coffee and walks on crisp autumn days. She laughs a little too loudly, never knows what to make for dinner, looks ridiculous kickboxing in an attempt to combat her muffin top, and always complains about the rain even though she chose to live in Seattle. 

She’s proud to have grown up in a small town like the ones in her novels. After graduating from the University of Southern California Drama School, she had hopes of becoming an actress but was called instead to writing fiction. She’s grateful to spend most days in her office matchmaking her characters while her favorite cat Mittens (shhh…don’t tell the others) sleeps on the desk.

SAMPLE FROM THE PATRON

Prologue

I was eight years old the summer I found home. I’d come to Emerson Pass, Colorado, sickly and pale from the Seattle mist and nagging gray to the land of indigo skies, deep rivers, and the sound of tall grasses rustling in morning air that smelled of wild roses and sunshine.

At the beginning of that summer, on a sunny day in June, Nan and I had already eaten our lunch, thickly sliced ham layered between pieces of homemade peasant bread slathered in butter. We’d washed them down with lemonade so cold it had made my throat ache. After we’d had our rest in the shade, Nan suggested we bring home a bouquet of wildflowers to decorate the kitchen table. My grandmother wasn’t one for lounging around. If the sun was up, so was she. A rule I’d learned after only a week in Colorado.

Nan and I walked along the bank of the river collecting brightly colored flowers that I had no name for in her worn wicker basket. I didn’t have a name for any of the trees or plants I saw. The trees seemed to come in many varieties here. There were some like the ones we had at home with green needles that smelled of the Christmas tree lot around the corner from our apartment during December. Here, my favorites of all the trees had leaves shaped like hearts. Breezes whispered through the leaves and made a sound like tiny hands clapping. They clapped for me.

Narrow as a board and strong as an ox, Nan wore a blue cotton dress that flapped around her long legs. A straw hat covered her silver hair, which she wore in a blunt bob cut just below her ears.

The river flowed gently and was a color of green I’d never seen before. “Why is the river so green?” I asked.

“Because the waters run deep. Like you.”

“Deep like me.” I didn’t know yet what that meant or how true it was. I hadn’t yet learned of metaphors or analogies. All I knew was that Nan talked that way sometimes and I loved it. I loved her.

Her arm, tanned to a golden beige from her summer work in her garden and alongside Pop in the horse barn, rippled with muscle as she dipped to clip a daisy for our bouquet. I looked at my own arm. Next to her, I was pale and sallow of skin. All winter and spring, I’d suffered from head colds and a recurring eye infection. I could not escape the chill no matter how much money my mother spent on the electrical bill in an attempt to warm our drafty Seattle apartment. Finally, blaming the cloudy, misty weather for my poor health, she’d packed me up and shipped me off to my Nan and Pop. I was to spend the entire summer on their small horse farm. Soaking up sun and my Nan’s hearty cooking, I’d come home transformed, Mom felt sure.

For the first few days I missed my mother. But Nan loved me fiercely and made me feel safe and known in her warm, sun-drenched kitchen. “We’ll dry you out and fatten you up before we send you back to your mother,” she’d said to me that first morning.

“Nan, what’s the reason Mom didn’t come here with me?” I asked now as I plucked a purple flower from the ground.

“This place makes her sad.”

“Why?”

“She loved a boy very much and when he broke her heart, she had to run away to the city to try to forget all about him.”

The idea of my mother loving a boy was impossible to picture. She raised me alone with no mention of why I didn’t have a father like most of the others in my second-grade class. “Did she forget all about him?”

“I don’t think so.” Nan set down the basket and squinted her eyes, looking at something across the river.

I followed her gaze. I couldn’t see anything other than the sparkle of the sun on the gentle ripples of the river.

“Did you know him?” I asked.

“Not as well as I thought I did.”

Another riddle. Later, I’d understand. At least I figured I would. Mom often said I was too young to ask some of the questions I asked her. Maybe I was also too young to understand everything Nan told me.

I observed her strong, broad hands as she adjusted her hat. My mother’s hands were the same, only they were always stained with clay because she made pottery in her wheel. She sold her pieces at summer art fairs, but most of our money came from her job at the department store downtown that smelled of rich ladies.

“Nan, will I ever grow strong like you?”

“Oh, yes. You’re a sunflower. Do you know about sunflowers?”

“Not really.”

“They start out from a small seed. But once they break through the ground, they tilt their face upward, and the sun makes them taller and taller until they explode with a glorious yellow flower as big as my hat brim. Then, after they’re all grown, they make hundreds of seeds. In that way, they make sure the next generation will also be able to grow toward the sun. Always tilt your face toward the light, my love, and you’ll be fine all your life.”

“Have you been fine all your life?”

“I’ve had the most glorious life of all. Do you know why?”

“Because of tilting your face up at the sun?”

“That, yes. But also because of your Pop. We’ve loved each other very well for forty-five years. That’s the most important thing, Crystal. The love of your partner. You must choose wisely. When he comes, the idea of love might scare you, but you must do it anyway.”

“Was my mom a sunflower?”

“The most beautiful one I ever saw. Like you will be someday.”

“Will you still be here then?” I asked. “When I’m beautiful?”

“I hope so. I’m already old. Did you know I was forty when I had your mother? We didn’t think the good Lord would bless us with a child. We’d been married twenty years by then. I couldn’t believe it when the doctor told me.”

“Is that old to have a baby?” I didn’t know anything about babies. All I knew was that my mom had only been nineteen when she had me. I’d overheard her tell someone that once.

“It’s pretty old but not impossible. I had a friend who had a baby at forty-four. We thought we should have a club for geriatric mothers of babies.”

“You won’t die soon, will you?” I didn’t even want to think about my world without Nan.

“I will eventually but not any time soon, God willing. Watching you grow makes me want to stay here as long as I can. I sure would love to live long enough to see you all the way grown. But whether or not you can see me here on earth, I’m always right there.” She tapped my chest. “In your heart. Whenever you need me, just call out and I’ll answer.”

A shadow passed overhead, covering the sun for a moment. Nan put her dry, warm hand on my arm. “Look up, Crystal. That’s a bald eagle.”

A bird with wings as wide as I was tall seemed to ride the wind. Mesmerized by her graceful flapping, I watched as she swooped low over the grasses that swayed in the breeze and made the music of the meadow.

“I’ve never seen one this close,” Nan whispered as she took my hand.

The powerful creature dived into the grass and came up with a small field mouse in its her beak. We squeezed each other’s hands as she soared up and into the blue.

“Isn’t she something?” Nan asked.

“Yes,” I breathed. The strength and power of the eagle reverberated inside my own body. I grew robust as I stood there in the aftermath. She was there inside me just as the deep river and wild roses were. From then on, they lived inside my body and soul. They were me and I them.

***

On the way home, the warmth in the car made me drowsy. Nan didn’t believe in naps. She said they kept a person from sleeping properly at night. I fluttered my eyelids to stay awake. “Nan, what’s it like here at Christmastime?”

“Magical. They put lights up in all the trees and the storefronts. And it’s all white with snow. The skiers come, of course, which we like because they bring money to the good folks who live here.”

I peered out the window at the northern mountain. The wire and posts of the chairlifts seemed lonely hanging over the snowless brown ski runs. I turned back to look at the quaint, orderly main street of town. Hanging baskets with purple and yellow flowers hung from the brick buildings. People roamed the sidewalks as if they had no place to be other than exactly where they were.

“Did you know that no two snowflakes are alike?”

“How do you know?” They were so small, how could anyone see the differences?

“They put them under microscopes. I think, anyway.”

A little girl with a golden braid sat on a bench outside an ice cream shop. Her cone had a scoop of pink ice cream. Next to her, a blond man ate one with chocolate. My favorite. I sighed, wishing I could taste that sweetness on my tongue.

Nan must have noticed my covetous gaze. “Should we stop for a scoop?”

“Really?”

“Sure. We’ll bring a bowl back for Pop, though, or he’ll be sad. He loves ice cream.”

“Who doesn’t?” I asked.

Nan parked on the street, and we hustled over to the shop and each ordered a cone. She got a weird kind called rum and raisin, but I went with chocolate. She asked the clerk to set aside a scoop of maple nut for Pop. “It’ll melt if we bring it out with us.”

I nodded, then licked my cone. My eyes widened at the creamy, rich flavor. “This is the best ice cream ever.”

“Everything in Emerson Pass is better,” Nan said.

We walked outside. The little girl and her father were still seated on the bench. The man called out to Nan. Everyone knew her here. “Joy, how are you?”

“Jack Vargas. I haven’t seen you in months.”

“I’ve been working in Denver during the week. The company has an apartment there.”

“Brandi, you’re getting so big,” Nan said to the girl.

The little girl ducked her head. Shy, like me.

“This here is my granddaughter, Crystal. She’s here all summer, Brandi, if you’d like to come over to the farm to play.”

Brandi raised her gaze to inspect me. “Where do you live normally?” Her voice was as creamy and sweet as the ice cream. She had round eyes like a doll. Her skin was tanned and her yellow hair had white streaks in it as though she spent a lot of time outside. A pair of jean shorts and a peach-colored tank top were probably a lot more fashionable than the overalls Nan had pulled out of a box of my mother’s old things. Brandi was pretty. Too pretty to be my friend.

“Seattle,” I answered between nervous licks of my cone.

“That’s far away,” Brandi said.

“I had to come on the airplane.”

“All by yourself?” Brandi asked.

“Yes, but they made me stay with a lady the whole time. She was kind of mean. She gave me a pin, like a pilot has on his uniform.”

“Really? I’d like one of those. I’ve never been on a plane.”

My earlier envy of her beauty lessened. I was a city girl who had been on a plane. That gave me a little something anyway, even if I was skinny and pale as a ghost. “You can come over and see it if you want.”

Brandi looked up at her dad. “Can I?”

“I’d have to check with your mother, but I don’t see why not.” Jack Vargas looked a lot like his daughter, tanned and blond. His hair was cut as if he’d be on TV delivering the news. Actually, now that I looked at him more closely, he kind of looked like a Ken doll. Even his tan shorts and blue T-shirt seemed like something I would dress my Ken doll in.

He turned to Nan. “She looks like Jennifer at that age. I think I remember those overalls.”

“You know my mom?” I asked, so surprised I almost dropped my cone.

“They were friends when they were little,” Nan said. Why did she have the “Don’t ask for another glass of water and it’s bedtime” voice?

“Sure, right.” Jack tossed the rest of his ice cream cone into the trash can next to the bench. “How’s your mom? Is she here?”

“No, she just sent me. Nan says this place broke her heart.” Is that what she said? I had a feeling I hadn’t quoted it quite right.

Jack Vargas looked down at the ground, as if there might be something on his shoe.

“All right, then. We have to go.” Nan motioned toward the car with her chin. “I’ll get Pop’s ice cream.”

I gave Brandi a shy smile. “Guess I’ll see you around.”

“Not if I see you first.” Brandi giggled. “My dad always says that.”

I walked away, still smiling. Maybe I’d made a new friend?

I’d had no idea then that Brandi would become my very best friend in the world. That first summer turned into many more with my Nan and Pop. They were killed in a car accident the year I turned twenty, just shy of their eightieth birthdays. Everyone in town said they went out together, just as they always had for most of their lives.

Four years after their death, the richest man in Seattle came into the restaurant where I worked and asked me out; I said yes. I’d said yes again when he asked me to marry him. Even when the trolls of the internet tried to take me down, I stayed tall and sure like a sunflower. I knew I had not married him for his money. He’d been my heart. My true companion. My soul mate.

Then he died. Then I lost our baby.

A part of me died with them.

I could no longer breathe in the city of grays and mists. So I went home. Home to Emerson Pass and its indigo sky and snowflakes and Brandi. If someone had told me what awaited me there, I wouldn’t have believed them. The secrets of the past rose from the ashes to change my life.

Chapter 1: Crystal

What is it the Buddhists say? To live is to suffer? I don’t know if they’re right, but by the time I turned thirty, I knew three truths on which to base my life. To love greatly was a risk that could and often did lead to pain. There wasn’t enough money in the world that could cure a broken heart. The only antidote to a soul split wide open was service to others.

On a morning in November, I padded to the window of Brandi’s guest room and drew back the curtain. A frost covered the ground. Fallen leaves glistened under the late-autumn sun. I hugged myself, shivering from cold.

The sound of the garage opening was followed by Trapper’s truck backing out of the driveway. He and Brandi had a doctor’s appointment with their ob-gyn in Louisville. Twenty weeks. They’d learn the gender of their baby. She would be fine, I told myself. The baby too. Soon I would have a little baby who would be like a niece or nephew. Brandi had already asked me to be his or her godmother.

From behind me, the creaking of the bed drew my attention. I turned to see that Garth had wakened. His long legs tangled up in the sheets, he lifted up on one elbow and gave me one of his lazy smiles. His wavy dark hair had flattened on one side during the night. In combination with an imprint of the sheet on his cheek, he looked like a little boy. But this was no child. This was a man. A good man. Good folks, Nan would have said.

“Morning,” Garth said with that sexy drawl of his. He’d spent time in a lot of places in the country, but his accent came from being raised by a Texan. “City Mouse, you all right?”

He called me City Mouse because he’d watched me try to cut wood into kindling one day. Until the fire came roaring through the southern mountain and took both our homes, he’d been able to see my house and yard from his deck. The flames would have taken me, too, if not for Garth. My devastatingly handsome dark-haired neighbor swooped in like that bald eagle had snatched the mouse and gotten me out of there alive.

Garth Welte. My eagle.

He’d saved me, and I’d given myself to him. My body, anyway. In the dark, I came alive under his touch. I was free of memories of Patrick then. In the mornings, though, I returned to the shadows, ashamed and guilty. This was the last time, I’d assure myself. But then another night would come.

“Are you cold?” Garth asked. “You want me to get you a sweater?”

That was Garth—always asking how I was doing or feeling. The laid-back drawl and low timbre of his voice soothed me like a favorite song.

I sat on the side of the bed, careful not to touch him. If I did, we’d be right back doing what we did together all too well. “I’m fine.”

“I know what you’re thinking,” Garth said. “That last night was our last time. I’m moving out, and we need to get on with our lives. Separate from whatever it is we’ve been doing.”

“We’re a broken record.” I peeked up at him from under my lashes. “I don’t know why we can’t seem to stop.”

“Could it be because we don’t want to?” He sat up, positioning a pillow behind his back.

“But you know the longer we do this, the harder it will be to stop.” I smoothed my hand over the cotton blanket.

“And neither of us wants to get involved emotionally,” Garth said.

“That was a statement, not a question, right?” Had he changed his mind? Was he starting to fall for me? I had no idea what went on in that brain of his. As concerned as he always seemed for my wellbeing, he kept his own feelings to himself.

“I know what you want me to say.” Garth ran a hand through his hair.

“You do?” I asked.

“I do, and I can’t say it anymore.”

“Garth.” What was he doing? The rules had been clear. Sex. Friendship. That’s where it stopped. There would be no talk of anything long term. No feelings allowed.

“I know. I know I’m changing the rules. Or I want to.”

I sprang up from the bed and wrapped myself around the bedpost. “No, you don’t just up and change the rules.”

“I’m sorry, but I can’t lie to you. I’m not made that way. Every time we end up in bed my feelings deepen for you.”

“Deepen?” I disentangled from the post and stepped backward toward the windows. Deepen was a verb, a changing thing. The deep green of the river. Like me. Isn’t that what my Nan had said on that day so long ago?

“I didn’t want to.” His eyes, the color of the apple-cinnamon tea my mother was so fond of, glittered at me from across the bed.

“I’ll never love anyone but Patrick. You know that.”

“That’s what you say,” he said softly. “And if that’s true, then you’re right. We have to stop doing this.” He stared at his hands. A muscle flexed in his cheek. He was gritting his teeth. Sometimes in the middle of the night I heard him gnashing them. He needed a mouth guard. But that’s the kind of thing a wife suggests, not a woman participating in a casual fling.

“I don’t want to hurt you,” I said.

“I know that.”

“If you’ve decided you’re ready for more, I’m holding you back from meeting the right person.” If anyone should have all the family trimmings of life, it was Garth. He was kind and patient and so very good. I’d watched him with the children at the shelter where we’d set up a place where the families who’d lost everything in the fire could stay until their new homes were built. He had a gentleness about him that drew the children to him.

The money for the shelter had come from me, but Garth was the heart of the effort. Especially when it came to the kids.

“I didn’t think I wanted something bigger than this,” Garth said. “I came here to live without complications. My divorce was enough heartbreak for a lifetime.”

I nodded. Garth rarely mentioned his ex-wife. However, it didn’t take a genius to understand how hard it had been on him. His parents had divorced after his brother’s death, and he’d vowed to himself that he would never be part of a failed marriage.

I should never have let this get started. I hadn't planned on sleeping with him. But after the evacuation we’d ended up at the same campsite. We’d been emotional and in need of comfort and had fallen into bed. Or in this case, a sleeping bag. I’d had too many swigs of whiskey. When he invited me into his tent, my fear and loneliness betrayed my better judgment. To my mortification, the whole thing had been a disaster. Afterward, I’d cried in his arms. I’d have thought that would be the end of it, but when we both ended up homeless, Brandi and Trapper had invited us to stay with them. Our bedrooms were way too close. The very first night, I slipped into his room. From that night on, we’d tried to resist each other, but somehow our chemistry kept bringing us back to the same place.

“Clearly the Welte men aren’t lucky in love,” Garth said with a wry smile. “But that doesn’t stop my dad.”

His father had been married four times to progressively younger women.

“I’m very fond of you,” I said. “You’ve been a great friend. I’d hate to lose that.” The thought of walking out that door crushed me. Thinking of being here without him left me chilled to the core. Still, I had to let him go.

"You’re right,” he said, sounding so defeated that I inwardly cringed. I’d done this to him. “We can't go on like this. I'm not the smartest man in the world like Patrick was. But I know people. I know what it feels like when a woman loves me. I can feel it in my hands every time I touch you. So go ahead, Crystal, deny it to yourself. I know better. But until you’re ready to let yourself live again, there’s no hope for us.”

I started shaking. Garth had never spoken to me this way. The raw emotion and anger in his voice scared me. Not as smart as Patrick? Did he think I found him lacking because of who I’d been married to?

“This has nothing to do with you missing anything,” I said. “This is about me.”

He cursed under his breath. “You’ve got that right.”

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“Stop saying that.” He plucked his boxer shorts from the end of the bed and threw back the sheet before standing.

I averted my eyes to keep myself from gazing at his spectacular form. He’d been a winning Olympic skier when he was young. Even in his midthirties, skiing and working out had kept his body in great shape.

Skiing.

A ski trip had killed Patrick when the private helicopter they’d rented had crashed. No survivors. That’s what they’d said to me. Not, your husband was killed. There were no survivors.

Even now, three years after his death, anger sparked in my chest. Why had he chosen that trip? I knew the answer. He lived for adrenaline. Garth was the same. He tore down the slopes with that same reckless quality that killed my husband. He’d been all about risk and living large with no thought to how his behavior might have heartbreaking consequences for the woman who loved him. There was no way I would ever go through that again.

“It’s not because of anything you’re lacking,” I said. “You’re a skier. A daredevil. Which means I cannot possibly fall in love with you, even if I wanted to.”

He turned slowly to look at me. “What do you mean?”

“As you know, Patrick died on a ski trip.” I said this flatly and without emotion, even though my stomach churned. “Do I have to spell it out?”

“I’m a skier? And you think that’s dangerous?”

I let go of the bedpost and backed up toward the windows. “Yes. I know how fast you ski down the slopes. You set the world record, for heaven’s sake.”

“A dozen years ago.”

“You could die.”

“But I’m not going to.”

“You don’t know that.” Supposedly that ski trip was perfectly safe too. Just last year a man died on the Emerson Pass slopes when he lost control and hit a tree. “There was that guy last season,” I said out loud.

“He was an amateur on a slope he had no business being on.” Garth spoke quietly and calmly, as if I were an animal about to charge at him. “That was completely different from anything I do.”

“You share too many qualities with my late husband. And I won’t be left alone again.”

“I’m not sure what we have in common. He was a brilliant billionaire tech guy. I’m a mediocre attorney and former Olympian.”

“It’s a quality. I can’t explain it. A recklessness.”

Garth grimaced as he grabbed the T-shirt hanging from one of the bedposts and pulled it over his head. “I’m not reckless. I’ve spent my whole life trying to find stability. Skiing is not reckless, it’s just something I love.” He sat on the edge of the ottoman. “My entire life was defined by my little brother’s death. I’ve had this feeling that I had to live for both of us. Every day I ski is with that in mind. I’m still here when he didn’t get to be. Racing down a mountain makes me feel alive.”

“I know. Which is why I would never ask you to give it up.” I crossed my arms over my chest. “Not for me.”

He rubbed his chin. “We have a connection, even if you think it’s only physical. A closeness that doesn’t come along every day.”

“We have chemistry in the bedroom,” I said, defensive. I didn’t enjoy being the bad guy. “But we’ve both known this wasn’t a long-term thing.”

“You’ll be rid of me.” Garth took his jeans from the arm of the chair, but instead of putting them on, folded them over his lap. “My house is done.”

I looked away, unable to stand the look of hurt in his eyes and in the tone of his voice. “We’re friends. That won’t change.”

“Sure. That’s good.” The finality in his tone told me he’d had enough. I’d managed to successfully push him away.

As he tugged his jeans on, I slipped into my robe, suddenly aware of how thin my pajamas were. If I wanted us to stay apart, then I shouldn’t be running around half naked.

“I’ll see you later?” I asked.

“Probably not. I’ll stay at my house tonight.”

He sounded so grim I almost reached out to him but knew that wasn’t fair. If we were to stay apart, I had to be strong.

When he reached the doorway, he turned back to me. “Did you have the kind of chemistry we have with your husband?”

I blinked, surprised by the question. How could I answer truthfully and not give him hope?

“Tell me,” he said.

“He and I loved each other very much.” Despite what others claimed, I’d married him because I loved him, not because of his money. The press had gone for my jugular when we’d gotten married. Forty-four to my twenty-four, rendering me a gold digger according to Twitter. “We enjoyed all aspects of a good marriage.”

“Was it as good as us? Because I find that hard to believe.” His eyes glittered with intensity as he stared me down.

“The things we’ve experienced together—I’ve never had that with anyone else, no. Not even Patrick.”

He smiled again, this time a little triumphantly. “Yet you claim there’s nothing here worth exploring?”

“Sex isn’t everything.” I sound ridiculous, I thought. Like a child. No one had ever given me as much physical pleasure as Garth. Still, I couldn’t grant him my heart.

“True enough,” he said. “But you said yourself we’re friends too. What’s better than being friends with the person you go to bed with every night?”

The air seemed to leave the room. “I’m not there. I’m sorry.”

“Fair enough. At least now we know where we stand.”

He didn’t give me a chance to say anything else as he opened the door and disappeared into the hallway.

Discombobulated, I sat on the side of the bed. Why did I feel strange and shaky? I do not care about him, I told myself. He’s just really good in bed. That’s all this is.

Anyway, this is how it happened. Love had sucked me in once and convinced me that all the broken, missing parts were fixed, and then he died on me.

Had I worried about my husband’s ski trip? Not at all. Back then I was still so stupidly sure everything would work out. I’d found the love of my life. For three lovely years we were happy.

After I’d moved to Emerson Pass and bought a home from an elderly gentleman perched on the southern mountain, I’d contemplated opening a restaurant. I could afford it, after all. The amount of money I’d inherited from Patrick was more than a hundred reasonable people could ever spend in a lifetime, unless one was interested in buying small islands and that kind of thing. However, I was conservative by nature. Nan and my mother had taught me that simplicity was best. My needs were simple. I wanted a quiet, unassuming life in the place where I’d been the happiest as a child. Garth had not been in the plan.

I went back to my maiden name. Other than a few friends, no one knew I was the widow of a famous tech billionaire. I’d opened a kitchen shop as a distraction from my grief. Perhaps because I’d been raised by a potter, I particularly loved curating beautiful pieces from small artisans and businesses around the world. In addition, I’d started giving cooking lessons once or twice a month in the kitchen. They’d become popular with the tourists especially. So much so that I’d hired a young chef, Mindy, in need of work to take over some of the classes. She’d been such a delight that I’d ended up hiring her full-time as my manager. Recently, she’d asked if she could buy me out, and we’d worked out a deal between us. As much as I’d thought it was a good idea to have a passion project, it felt right to transition it to someone who needed and wanted the work more than I did. By the end of the month, the paperwork would be completed.

However, as I heard the shower start in Garth’s room, I had to admit I was not doing a particularly good job of understanding my feelings. I sat back on the bed, unsure of what to do or think.

I wished I could talk to Nan. I needed her cleareyed vision to tell me what to do. I touched my fingers to the spot on my chest she’d tapped that day by the river. Nan, what am I doing?

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