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Crammed into the small backseat of Watkins's king cab, Trey Wheeler thought about the wedding he would soon be a part of. He'd worked as a horse trainer at the Last Chance Ranch for a few months, so he didn't know the groom, Emmett Sterling, all that well. But Trey could tell the ranch foreman was ma-jorly stressed about his upcoming nuptials.
His fiancée, Pam Mulholland, ran a B and B down the road from the Last Chance. She seemed like a nice lady, but when it came to this wedding, she wasn't making things easy on Emmett. Even a newcomer like Trey could see that.
Pam was wealthy and Emmett was not. Although Emmett was crazy about Pam, he'd allowed their financial differences to keep him from proposing until the previous summer, when a shyster had blown into town and shown interest in Pam. Emmett had thought it prudent to take her off the market before he ended up losing her forever.
But Pam, who'd been previously married to a cheating bastard, wanted the wedding of the century this time, and she'd reserved the entire Serenity Ski Lodge in Jackson Hole for a Christmas-themed celebration. Trey was thrilled because Pam had hired him to play guitar for the ceremony along with Watkins, a seasoned ranch hand and the husband of Mary Lou Simms, the ranch's cook. Trey had caught a ride up to the Serenity resort with Watkins and Mary Lou, who were as eager for several days of celebrating as everyone else. Everyone, that was, except the groom.
Trey edged his guitar case aside and leaned toward the front seat as they navigated the snowy road leading to the resort. "Do you think there's a chance Emmett will bail and ruin everything?"
"No," Mary Lou said. She'd tamed her flyaway gray hair under a furry hat. "I've known Emmett Sterling for a lot of years, and he's considerate. He might not like this operation, but it's what Pam wants, and he loves her."
"That's a fact," Watkins agreed. "And the Chance family has gone to some trouble to hire temporary help so we could all get up here and stay a couple of days after the wedding. Emmett wouldn't mess with that kind of generosity."
"I hope not." Trey looked out at the snowy landscape. "I know how much everybody's looking forward to this, including me."
Watkins grinned as he glanced in the rearview mirror. "You gonna try skiing, cowboy?"
"You know, I might. I mean, thanks to Pam, it's free, so why not?"
"That's what I'm thinking," Watkins said. "At least the bunny slope, right, Lou-Lou?"
"At least. I used to be pretty good, but I haven't skied in years. I hope it's like riding a bike and it'll all come back to me once I suit up."
Watkins sent her a fond glance. "I can't wait to see you all decked out. I'll bet you'll look great in goggles."
Mary Lou laughed. "No, I won't, you old flatterer, but I appreciate the thought."
Trey got a kick out of those two. They were both in their fifties, and Watkins had been after Mary Lou for years. She'd resisted the idea of tying the knot until about eighteen months ago, but now that they were married, they both seemed deliriously happy. It was very cute.
The truck approached a curve, and Trey sucked in a breath, as he always did when he came to this part of the road.
"You okay back there?" Watkins glanced in the rearview mirror again.
"Yeah. This is where I had my accident last spring. It always gets to me a little bit."
"I'm sure it does." Mary Lou looked back at him, her gaze sympathetic. "You could've died."
"I would've died, if that woman hadn't come along." His angel. For the millionth time, he asked himself why she'd come to his rescue and then left before he could thank her.
He'd been heartbroken after getting a Dear John letter from Cassie, who'd moved back east to attend law school and had fallen for someone there. In the predawn hours, he'd lost control of his Jeep on this curve. Pure misery had kept him from fastening his seat belt, so when the Jeep flipped, he'd been thrown into a snowdrift.
As cold as it had been that morning, he could easily have died from exposure. But his angel had shown up, pulled him out of the snow, taken him to the hospital and left. In his dazed state, he only remembered a halo of blond hair, blue eyes and a soft voice. He also thought she'd come to his hospital room once to check on him, but he'd been really out of it and might have dreamed that.
After he'd recovered, he'd tried unsuccessfully to find out her name. His search had yielded nothing. If she'd given it to the hospital personnel, it had disappeared somehow. Nobody could help him.
Without a name, his chances of finding her dropped considerably. He couldn't even describe her very well, other than her blond hair and blue eyes. Lots of women in the Jackson Hole area had blond hair and blue eyes. She also might have been a tourist, which meant she could live anywhere. People from all over the world visited Jackson Hole.
He wasn't even sure he'd recognize her if he saw her on the street. But her voice haunted his dreams, and he thought he might know the sound of it if he heard it again. More than once he'd stopped a blonde walking down the sidewalk in Jackson and asked her something lame, like directions to the nearest burger joint, so he could listen to her voice. None of them had sounded like his angel.
He'd begun to think she might have been an honest-to-God angel instead of a real woman. He didn't really believe in such things, but that would explain her sudden appearance at his hour of need and why she'd vanished into thin air after rescuing him. Still, he kept looking and listening, hoping that he'd meet her again so he could express his gratitude.
In the meantime, because he owed his life to her, he'd wanted to do something to commemorate her rescue. She might be a caring woman who didn't want to be identified, or she might be a spirit sent down from heaven. In either case, she was his angel.
After much thought, he'd chosen to have an angel's wing tattooed on his left biceps in her honor. Whenever he looked at it, he was reminded that he was one lucky son of a bitch to be alive. In the months that had followed the accident, he'd also realized that Cassie had not been worth dying for. He was ready to move on. Unfortunately, the woman who had made that epiphany possible had vanished without a trace.
Elle Masterson looked forward to having the Last Chance Ranch folks at Serenity for a long weekend while the foreman and his lady got hitched. She'd been warned by management that these would not be experienced skiers, but teaching beginners was her first love. With no other guests to take care of, she'd build her schedule around whatever they wanted, beginning first thing in the morning.
Before then, she needed to finish her Christmas shopping. Rather than head into Jackson, she'd decided to see if she could find something for her favorite cousin in the Serenity resort gift shop. The items were pricey, but she'd get an employee discount.
The shop wasn't busy. The only customer was a tall cowboy, probably part of the Last Chance bunch, who had his back to her as he glanced through a selection of postcards on a rack near the door. Saman-tha, a fun-loving, curvaceous redhead, stood behind the jewelry counter at the far end of the store, and Elle headed in that direction.
"Hey, Elle! What's up?" Samantha seemed eager for company.
"I need something pretty for my cousin Jill. A necklace, maybe. She likes turquoise, but she also likes nature-themed stuff, like wolves and"
"My God, it's you! I recognize your voice!"
She whirled toward the speaker. The tall cowboy who'd been shopping for postcards stood at the end of the jewelry counter staring at her as if he'd seen a ghost. One glance into his brown eyes and she knew why.
Trey Wheeler looked completely recovered and perfectly healthy. He also was as drop-dead gorgeous as she'd remembered. Like most cowboys, he wore his hat indoors, the brim pulled down a bit so it shadowed his eyes and gave him an air of mystery. He'd also left on his sheepskin jacket, but he'd unbuttoned it, which provided a glimpse of his physique.
The guy was built like a defensive endslim hips, broad shoulders, powerful chest. She wondered if he was still hung up on Cassie, the woman he'd called out for at the hospital, the woman he'd begged not to leave him.
He swallowed. "So you're real, after all." His voice was husky with emotion.
"Did you think I wasn't?" Then she considered what shape he'd been in after the accident. He'd suffered from exposure and a concussion. He might have thought she was a hallucination.
Samantha spoke up from behind the counter. "Could one of you fill me in? Sounds like there's a story here."
Elle turned to her. "This gentleman flipped his Jeep into a snowbank last April, and I took him to the hospital."
"Then you disappeared," Trey added. "I've been searching for you ever since. Where did you go?"
His eyebrows shot up. "You live there?"
"Six months out of the year, starting in April. Then I'm here for six months. I'm a ski instructor."
He nodded slowly, as if fitting the pieces together. "That explains why I didn't run into you around town. But I wish you'd left your name and contact information. You saved my life. I wanted to show my appreciation for that."
"Wow, Elle." Samantha gazed at her. "You're just like the Lone Ranger!"
"My thoughts exactly." Trey seemed to have recovered his poise. He walked forward and held out his hand. "But now that you're unmasked, allow me to introduce myself."
She knew his name, but didn't want him to know that she knew, so she kept quiet.
"I'm Trey Wheeler, horse trainer out at the Last Chance, and I'm exceedingly grateful for what you did."
She grasped his large hand. His grip was firm, warm, and sexy. Tingles of awareness shot through her. "You're welcome. I'm glad I happened along."
She tried to extract her hand, but he held it captive as he smiled down at her. "Not so fast. I still don't know your name."
"Elle Masterson." The continued physical contact jacked up her heart rate.
"Nice to meet you at last, Elle. Buying you dinner doesn't seem like much of a payback, but it's a beginning. Are you busy tonight?"
She scrambled to get her bearings. Trey Wheeler was a fast mover. She should have anticipated such an invitation, but she hadn't. "Sorry, but I make it a policy not to date resort guests." She smiled to take the sting out of the rejection.
"I get that, but this isn't a date. It's a thank-you dinner for saving my life. That's significantly more important than a date."
"So you'll take me to dinner and consider your obligation to me fully satisfied?"
He grinned. "I didn't say that."
Her heartbeat ratcheted up another notch. He had a killer smile going on, and he was employing it to maximum effect. He seemed determined to charm her, and he was accomplishing his goal.
But she followed her personal rule about not dating guests for many reasons. All sorts of complications could arise, including getting fired for unprofessional conduct. Every resort she'd worked for had agreed it was a good policy, although some were more relaxed about the issue than others.
And even if she didn't have a strict policy against dating guests, she'd be wary of dating this one. Catching a guy on the rebound wasn't her idea of fun. She took a deep breath. "I'm sorry, Trey, but dinner isn't a good idea. I understand that you want to thank me in some way, but anyone would have done the same under similar circumstances. Your gratitude is very sweet, but you don't owe me for doing the right thing."
"I think I do, but if dinner won't work, I'll come up with something else."
"No, really. That's unnecessary. Knowing that you're all recovered is enough of a reward for me."
His brown gaze was warm as it swept over her. "I admire your modesty, but this is important to me, and I'm not the kind of man to just let it go. You'll be hearing from me. See you later, Elle." He touched the brim of his hat and walked out of the shop.
She stared after him, her pulse hopping around like a Mexican jumping bean.
"You should have accepted his invitation to dinner," Samantha said.
Elle turned. "You know I don't believe in getting cozy with a guest."
"Yeah, but he has a point about the special circumstances. Besides, not many guests look like him. He's one hot cowboy. I say he's worthy of a little rule-bending."
"Let's think about this for a minute, Sam. He's not simply a guest. He works at a ranch in the area, which means he won't be completely gone come Tuesday afternoon."
"Even better! Then he'll stop being the kind of conflict of interest that bothers you so much."
"No, but " Elle felt ridiculous putting her reservations about Trey into words. She'd sound paranoid, or at least presumptuous. She didn't know him at all, so she couldn't predict how he'd behave in a relationship.
Yet she'd heard his heartbroken plea to Cassie, obviously his former lover. Cassie might be old news by now, but Trey didn't strike her as the type who'd be fine with dating a woman who spent half the year in Argentina. He seemed too intense for a casual affair.
Casual affairs were all she allowed herself because she had such a great life following the snow. She didn't want to tie herself down to one place or one man. Not yet, anyway.
Maybe in a few years she'd grow tired of the traveling. At that point, someone like Trey would be a possibility. But he wasn't right for her now, no matter how fast her heart beat when he was near.
Samantha frowned in obvious disapproval. "I know what it means when you tighten your jaw. You're going to reject this yummy man's advances, aren't you?"
Elle consciously relaxed her jaw and smiled at Sam. "Yep. But you're welcome to him, if he appeals to you that much."
"Oh, he does, but I don't stand a chance. He only has eyes for you."
"No, it's incredibly romantic. Did you hear what he said? He recognized your voice. That means he carried the sound of your voice around in his head for months while he searched for you. The memory of you haunted him. How great is that?"
Elle rolled her eyes. "You really should ask him out. You're obviously into his brand of drama."
"You should be, too. A Prince Charming like him doesn't come along every day of the week. You may look back on this later and realize you screwed up a golden opportunity."
"Maybe I will, Sam, but the timing is way off." She gazed at her friend. "He may be a prince, but I'm not ready for a fairy-tale ending."