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The lazy, hazy days of summer couldn't get here soon enough. Well, the hazy days, anyway. No one who lived in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, would describe summer as lazy. They would describe now as lazy. Relaxing. Maybe even rejuvenating.
Not Haley Foster. She was, in fact, bored out of her ever-living skull.
Admittedly, an odd state of being. With the hectic winter tourist season behind them and the summer season yet to arrive in full force, she should be enjoying the brief slowdown. She always had in the past. This year, though, she was restless.
More than that, really. She had this itchy, uncomfortable sense of waiting for somethinganythingto happen. What, exactly, she didn't have a clue. Just something.
And that was why she couldn't wait for summer. The tourists would breeze in to spend their vacations white-water rafting, hiking, canoeing, or any one of the many other activities available in the area, and her sleepy town would wake again. She would be busy from sunup to sundown, and wouldn't have the time to worry about why she felt so off.
Sighing, she leaned back in her chair at the Beanery, the local coffee joint, and tried to pay attention to her longtime friend Suzette Solomon. They'd met earlier for a Saturday morning Spinning class. Now, they were supposed to be savoring their reward of yummy hot beverages while catching up on each other's lives.
Suzette was in the midst of sharing a funny story about one of her fourth-grade students, and while Haley managed to chuckle and insert a comment here and there, mostly she couldn't pull herself out of her own head long enough to relax. Dammit! She'd really believed that an hour of hard exercise followed up by a solid dose of friend time would ease the edginess.
She'd been wrong.
Why was she so freaking restless? And for that matter, why did she feel as if life were passing her by? She wasn't old, for crying out loud. At twenty-six, she had plenty of time to do anything she wanted to do. But lately, the days and the nights had seemed interminably long, and even when she was with her family or friends, she had the inexplicable sensation of loneliness.
Maybe she needed to take up a new hobby. Or buy a pet. Or When an epiphany failed to strike, she decided to place the full blame on being stuck between seasons. Had to be. Why search for a deeper meaning when the simplest answer was usually the culprit?
Suzette cleared her throat and watched Haley expectantly, apparently waiting for some type of a response. Oh, crap. Was this a laugh, be shocked or commiserate moment? She went with a soft chuckle, hoping that would cover all possible bases.
"Cute story, huh?" Suzette asked, ruffling her short black hair with her fingers.
"So cute," Haley agreed enthusiastically.
"Yeah? What was your favorite part?"
"Um, honestly, I don't think I can choose a favorite. The entire story was just adorable, and really, I bet cute and adorable stuff happens every single day in your classroom."
"Really, Haley?" Suzette gave her a long, semi-amused look. "You're seriously going to pretend that you didn't zone out a good five or ten minutes ago?"
Sighing again, Haley offered a faint smile. "I'm sorry. Was I that obvious?"
"Obviously, or I wouldn't have noticed." Wrapping her hand around her coffee cup, Suzette said, "No worries, though. I know I can go on and on about my students."
"I like hearing about your students!" And she did. Usually. "I was thinking about how slow the days are, and how I can't wait for summer to get here so everything can pick up again. That's all." Close enough to the truth. As close as she wanted to get, anyway.
"Since when? For almost the entire winter, all I heard was how anxious you were for enough empty hours in the day to read a book, watch a movie, paint your apartment." She arched a finely plucked eyebrow. "Go out on a few dates. Which, actually, I wanted to ask"
"I've read the books and watched the movies I wanted to, and you helped me paint my apartment. So now, I'm ready for summer."
"Hmm, yes. But you left one item off of that list. Tell me, how many dates have you racked up in the past few months?"
Wrinkling her nose, Haley sipped her chai tea. Suzette already knew the answer to that question. "My lack of a dating life has nothing to do with my boredom." Her loneliness, maybe, but she didn't feel like broaching that topic. "I'm just bored."
"Uh-huh. Sure you are."
"You know how it is in between seasons," she argued, hoping beyond hope that she was right, and that once summer rolled in, these odd feelings would disappear. "Instead of twelve-hour workdays, I barely have enough on my agenda to stay busy for eight."
Haley's family owned two businesses in Steamboat Springs. All of the FostersHaley, her three older brothers, and their parentswere partners in the running of said businesses. During the winter and summer months, that meant keeping up with her normal duties as well as helping out in the restaurant and in the sporting goods store.
In the spring and fall, though, she was primarily in the office contending with the businesses' basic accounting needs, updating their websites, and ordering supplies and inventory. Most of which she'd long since mastered, so typically, none of it took very long.
"I do know how it is," Suzette agreed easily. Her parents were also local business owners, and Suzette had worked at their deli during summers until she'd graduated from college. "Your work schedule isn't the issue. Or what's really bothering you, so why don't we talk about that?"
"Stop." Forcing a laugh, she wished that Suzette didn't know her quite so well. In this particular context, anyway. "There isn't anything else bugging me."
"You're in a funk, dating-wise," Suzette said matter-of-factly, as if Haley hadn't spoken. "Happens to all of us at one time or another. But as they say, the first step is admitting an issue exists. So, I have an idea to fix your boredom and make a certain someone"
"Stop," she repeated, sensing the conversation was headed directly toward blind-date land. "There isn't an issue. None! And I have no desire to be fixed up with anyone."
"Even if that guy is cute, sweet and funny?"
"Intelligent and warmhearted?"
"Even if," she repeated. "And if he's that amazing, why aren't you dating him? Unless Oh, no, Suzette. You're not trying to fix me up with one of your leftovers, are you?"
"One date, and not even a real date, and we didn't even kiss," she said with a flick of her wrist. "So nope, not a leftover. Promise."
"Darn close, though. Jeez."
Letting out a huff, Suzette said, "Just say the words, Haley. Dating. Funk."
"So speaks the woman who juggles three men on any given weekend." Haley was only half joking. Her friend always seemed to have a man on each arm.
"Only because I'm not as choosy as you." Narrow shoulders lifted in a slight shrug. "If a nice guy asks me out, I tend to say yes. Whereas you tend to pluck excuses from the air in order to say no." Bracing her elbows on the table, she rested her chin in her hands. "I have a better question for you. How many dates have you turned down in the past few months?"
Mentally doing the math, Haley frowned. She'd declined a handful of invitations, so what? Lonely was one thing. Dating someone she wasn't interested in was another. "I don't see the point in spending an evening with a man based on how nice he is."
"Because spending an evening with a nice guy is such a horrible experience?"
"Not at all! He should be nice, obviously, but there should also be something more."
"Sexual attraction is always a plus, but"
"I'm not even talking about that," Haley interrupted. Not that she disagreed. But, "I don't want to know every detail about a man's life before we order drinks. I want to be curious about a man, about what makes him tick."
And that right there was her real issue. Despite how nice many of the local men were, she just knew them too freaking well for them to hold any real interest. When you could all too easily picture a man swallowing mouthfuls of glue or picking his nose from their elementary school days, it was hard to see him in a different light. Unfair, she knew, but the truth.
Sure, she'd dated plenty in the past. None of those relationships had evolved into anything. Some of those failures she placed squarely on her big brothers' shoulders. Sweet as they were, they could also be a little too overprotective. The rest well, the guys had either turned out to be jerks, or there simply hadn't been enough chemistry.
In other words, unless she moved to another citywhich she had absolutely no desire to doher future love life looked pretty darn bleak.
Maybe she should let Suzette fix her up. The thought was defeating somehow, and for whatever reason, not something she wanted to do. Yeah, she should get a pet.
A cat, maybe. Or ten. Didn't all spinsters have a houseful of cats?
"Are you saying what I think you are?" Suzette asked, her voice this side of shocked. Perhaps even a little amused. And damn if Haley could figure out where her mind had gone.
"Er, I don't know," she said. "What do you think I'm thinking?"
"Are you considering having a summer fling with a hot, hunky tourist or two?"
Laughter burbled out of Haley's throat. It felt good, even if the thought was ludicrous. "Oh, come on, that is not why I'm ready for summer. You know me better than that."
"I do, but a girl can hope. Besides, why not?"
She had nothing to say to that. Not one thing.
"It could be fun," Suzette prodded. "How will you know unless you give it a try?"
"Um, because I do. I'm not interested." Tourists weren't around long enough to appeal, and she wanted something more meaningful than a fling. Tired of trying to explain a yearning she didn't quite understand, she said, "You were right to begin with. I'm too picky."
"Look, Haley," Suzette said, her voice becoming serious, "you're thinking too hard about this! Date a few guys. Have some fun. You don't have to marry any of them, but it has to better than sitting at home wishing for twelve-hour workdays. Which is rather nuts, you know."
"I know, but"
The door flew open and a man entered. Blinking, she watched him stride toward Lola, the owner of the Beanery and, as it so happened, a close friend of Haley's mother. He held a clipboard in one hand, the other was squeezed into a fist at his side, and every ounce of his body seemed intense and hard, as if he were prepared for a fight.
She had drawn the same impression when she'd originally met him, back in December. His name was Gavin Daugherty, and he was somewhat of a newcomer to Steamboat Springs. At the time, he'd come into the sports store looking for work as a ski instructor. They hadn't had any positions available, but her brother Cole had latched onto her interestcuriosityand for a while, had seemed bent on finding out more about Gavin.
Fortunately, Cole's attention had become otherwise occupied by his now-fiancée, Rachel Merriday, and he'd seemingly forgotten all about Gavin.
But Haley hadn't. The man had been on her mind a lot.
Silly, really, as she knew hardly anything about him, and had seen him only a few times since. Curious, she watched as he got into line behind four others to wait his turn. The woman in front of him instantly stepped forward, putting a few more inches of space in between her and him. Gavin stepped forward as well, as folks were apt to do when a line moved. The woman attempted to move up again, but she didn't have any room left to do so.
Instead, she sidled to the side. Without missing a beat, Gavin retreated a few inches and gestured for the woman to retake her place in line. She didn't look at him and, rather than moving closer, she stepped another few inches in the opposite direction, and then several more.
A slow burn began inside as Haley put two and two together. She had a sense that people backed away from Gavin often. She supposed that was due in part to his size, as he was a giant of a man. Probably around six-foot-five, he had the build of a linebacker that only began with the wide, muscular breadth of his shoulders. And okay, he could use a haircut and a shave to get rid of the Grizzly Adams look he had going. Even so, his appearance didn't scare her or make her uneasy. She could see, however, how others might view him as intimidating.
"So what do you say?" Suzette asked, interrupting her thoughts. "Can't be next weekend, but if I can put something together for the weekend after next, are you game? Please say yes."
"Um, sure," Haley said, entirely focused on Gavin. "Whatever, whenever, is fine."
"That's great! We'll have fun, you'll see. And I know you'll like Matt."
"Uh, what?" Returning her attention to her friend, Haley said, "Wait a minute. Who is Matt and why does it matter if I'll like him or not?"
"Matt is the guy we've been talking about. He's one of the teachers I work with." Suzette smiled smugly and crossed her arms over her chest. "And you just agreed to a double date."
"No way, Suzette." Haley shook her head to back up her words. "I'm not interested in a blind date, double or otherwise."
"You already agreed," Suzette said in a singsong voice. "So, tough. I swear, he's a great guy. And since he didn't grow up here, you can learn all about what makes him tick. That is what you said you wanted, right?"
Scowling, she pushed a strand of hair off her cheek. "It is, but you're being unfair. I didn't know what I was agreeing to." Unable to stop herself, Haley turned to look at Gavin again.
"Yep, but whose fault is that?"
"Mine, but you took advantage."
"True. I'm holding you to it, though. For your own sake." Following the direction of Haley's gaze, she asked, "What is so interesting up there that you can't stop staring?"
Letting the topic dropfor nowHaley asked, "Do you see that guy?"
"Mr. Mountain Man? Yeah, he's hard to miss."
"If you were standing in line with him, would you feel uncomfortable or threatened?"
Suzette shrugged. "I might, if he looked at me funny. He's a big guy and look at how he's standingall stiff and straight, like he's rearing up to pounce or something. If he just stood there and ignored me, though, I wouldn't give him a second thought. Why ask for trouble, right?"
"He has a killer body, though," Suzette mused. "I wonder if he's hot beneath all that hair. Do you know him?"
"Not really." Quickly draining the rest of her tea, she stood. "I'm going to get another. Do you want anything?"
"Ah no. I think I'm good." Suzette glanced from Haley to Gavin and back again. "Him? You're interested in that guy? He doesn't look to be your type."
Heat suffused Haley's cheeks. "I want more tea, Suzette. That's all. And how do you know what my type is, anyway? I don't even know what my type is."