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Jolie Tanner might as well have been carrying a dead body as far as level of difficulty was concerned. But there was nothing else for it, so she hauled and she shoved until finally the box was on the ski sled and strapped into place. So what if cardboard packing boxes weren't meant to endure such treatment? This one didn't have a choice.
Time to go. Past time to go, but Jolie turned back towards the cabin, her rubbersoled snow boots scrabbling for purchase on the icy step as she pulled the door closed and locked it. Everything was as it should be inside the cabin. Clean, tidy and utterly impersonal. Mission complete.
Climbing into the ski mobile's driver's seat, Jolie headed for the gondola next and went through the process of getting the box off the sled and into the waiting ski gondola, grimacing as the box took yet another beating for her efforts. From there she headed for the ski field control tower and parked the ski mobile in its spot beside the door.
The ski mobile rig was Hare's. So too was the heavy coat he'd insisted Jolie put on before he let her head for the cottage. The twoway radio in her pocket was his too. It had crackled to life a few minutes ago with Hare in his official capacity of skifield manager telling her to make swift with the time because the weather was getting worse, the last gondola ride down mountain was leaving five minutes ago, and she'd damn well better be on it.
Everything in its place, she unhitched the sled and stored it in the lockup. Everything in its placea little phrase Hare rammed home to every employee on the mountain. Everything where it ought to be or you could get the hell off Silverlake Mountain and go down and work the bars and restaurants and ski lodges of Queenstown instead.
'Is it done?' Hare murmured as she slipped into the control room and shut the door behind her.
'It's done.' Jolie set the ski mobile keys on the key rack by the door, and the twoway back in its charger on the counter. She pulled the cottage keys from her pocket and held them out towards Hare. These ones had no hanging spot that Jolie knew of. 'Mama said to give you these, as well.'
When Hare rubbed at one of his arms rather than take them, Jolie set the keys down on the counter. Frankly, she never wanted to lay eyes on them again. She could hardly blame Hare for wanting the same.
'Never did sit right with me, that arrangement,' muttered Hare.
'Yeah, well, you're not exactly in the minority.' A truth for a truth and only for Hare. Everyone else got defiant and hostile silencea defence mechanism that predated her teens. 'But it's done with now.'
Death had a way of finalising things.
'How's your mama holding up?' asked the big man. 'She at the funeral?'
'No,' said Jolie wearily. 'Of course she's not. She was heading out to walk alongside Lake Wanaka for a while instead. Reckons she'll say goodbye to him there.'
'She working the bar this evening?' asked Hare and Jolie nodded.
'Yes. You're invited to come down and drink to the dead tonight, by the way. Discreetly, of course, but it's on the house. It's the wake you have when you're not having a wake.'
'She loved him,' said Hare gruffly. 'You give her that, if nothing else.'
'I know. It's just' Bitterness didn't become her; Jolie tried her best to avoid it. But she'd just spent an afternoon removing all traces of her mother from James Rees's selfindulgent life and remembering in the process exactly how much her mother had given up for him and what she'd received in return. 'I know.'
Not Hare's fault, Jolie's foul mood. Not his fault that he'd been the unlucky employee charged with running herd on young Jolie that first time Rachel Elizabeth Tanner had gone up to the high cabin to be with her married lover. Not Hare's fault he'd been stuck with Jolie every time after that until Jolie had deemed herself old enough to not need a babysitter any more.
Hare had taught her to ski, taught her the mountain and kept her safe from everything but bitter reality.
Nothing could keep her safe from that.
Things had changed for Jolie after James Rees's affair with Rachel Tanner had come to light. Jolie's friends had not remained friends and she'd never really got the hang of making new ones. And when the boys had started to notice Jolieand they hadJolie had discovered that former friends could turn into jealous and angry enemies who knew exactly where to hit so as to make the hurt go in deep.
'You gonna stick around Queenstown for a while?' asked Hare. 'Help your mama adjust?'
Jolie shrugged. 'I can stay a couple of weeks. Then I'll have to get back to work in Christchurch.'
'Heard you landed a drawing job there.'
'I did.' Sheer bloodymindedness and talent had got her a job as a graphic artist for a film special effects company. Sheer bloodymindedness and talent kept her there. The payoff being that she didn't have to deal with reality on a daily basis. Reality was overrated.
'Could you do it from here?'
'Why would I want to do that?'
'I don't know.' Hare seemed to hesitate. He scratched his head and pulled a frown. 'Might be different for you here now that James is gone.'
'I can't see why. Hannah's still here. Cole's still here. James's widow is here.' The reclusive Christina Rees. 'And they still own half the town. They've never been inclined to make anything easy for a Tanner.'
'Wasn't easy for any of you,' said Hare gruffly. 'Could be a good time to let go of old grudges.'
'Now you're being rational,' said Jolie. 'Interaction between Tanners and Reeses is never rational.'
'Doesn't have to be that way,' said Hare.
'Yeah, it does,' she said softly, and opened up to Hare because the big man had always been kind to her and knew more of the real Jolie Tanner than most. 'Hare, I don't want to come back to Queenstown. All I ever did here was hide myself away from other people. Put on masks so that people would see what they expected to see. A young girl completely at home in a bar full of strangers. The defiant daughter of James Rees's mistress. A siren in my own right, fully comfortable in the role. All of them masks, whereas in Christchurch ' Jolie shrugged awkwardly. 'I've finally gathered the courage to step out from behind the masks and just be me. I kind of like being me.'
'You're making friends, then?'
'Not quite.' Another awkward shrug. 'Not yet. But at least I don't have enemies. That's something, right?'
'Right,' said Hare gruffly.
Now she'd embarrassed him. And exposed herself. Not a place of comfort. Definitely time to flee. 'You ready to send that gondola downhill yet?'
'Just waiting on another passenger.'
'Who?' The ski field had been closed since lunchtime on account of the unpredictable weather. Jolie figured that all the other employees and skiers on the mountain would have headed downhill hours ago. All except for Hare, who lived on the mountain in a cabin half a kilometre away from the main complex.
'Cole who?' But Hare wasn't answering. Nor was he looking her in the eye. Jolie's stomach began to churn and churn hard. 'Cole Rees is here on the mountain?'
'Came up a couple of hours ago. He's up at the lookout.'
'But how can he be here?' She'd planned her foray to the cabin for a time no member of the Rees family would be anywhere near here. 'Why isn't he at his father's funeral?'
'Didn't ask. The man wasn't looking for conversation, Jolie. He was looking for space.'
And now he'd be sharing space with her all the way back down the mountain. Just Cole Rees and Jolie Tanner and a box full of evidence of her mother's twelveyear affair with his father. 'Great,' she muttered. 'That's just great. Any chance of rolling another gondola around so that Cole can ride down on his own?' The ski lift consisted of several eightberth sky gondolas and was a twelveminute ride, top to bottom.
'None,' said Hare. 'Blizzard warning just came in. You're lucky I'm prepared to run this one.' He looked out of the tripleglazed window of the control hut and nodded once. 'Time to go, girlie. There's Cole.'
Jolie followed Hare's gaze. And there he was. Cole Rees, large as life. Striding down the lookout path towards the gondola, his raven hair windblown and his pretty face set against the worsening weather. A man so reckless, unpredictable and downright sexy he made Jolie's insides clench. And that was before she factored in his hatred of all things Tanner. 'Great,' she said grimly. 'That's just great.'
Jolie grabbed a ratty sheepskin hat with earflaps from the assortment of old lostandfound attire hanging on the back wall of the tower and jammed it on top of her beanie. The hat wouldn't be missed, and, besides, she'd give it back. She added a thick black scarf and lostandfound ski goggles to the ensemble while Hare looked on, deadpan.
'I take it you're keeping my coat,' he said.
'I'll give it back tomorrow.' Not for the first time today, Jolie gave thanks that she'd worn her oldest ski gear. Unisex attire purchased years ago during a mercifully brief phase in which she'd attempted to downplay her looks and her femininity. Her ski boots were black, chunky, overworn and all about getting the job done. Nothing feminine about them either. 'Hair,' offered Hare.
'Oh.' She took off the hat and goggles, twisted her auburn tresses round and round and then up beneath the beanie, and then jammed the hat back on her head. Her red hair was a legacy from her mother and truly distinctive. Men were fascinated by it. Hairdressers wanted to bottle it. Jolie had no complaints of it, truth be told, but right now she wanted it hidden. She pulled the hat's earflaps down. 'Better?'
'You look like E.T.'s Alaskan cousin,' said Hare. 'I take it that's the point?'
'Yes,' she said, snapping the goggles down over her eyes.
'Or you could be yourself,' murmured Hare. 'No, I really couldn't. Meet JT. J for Josh. He works for you.'
'Go,' said Hare with a roll of his eyes. And as Jolie leaned in to embrace her old minder and mentor, 'Well, don't kiss me!'
'Suit yourself.' Jolie gave him a manly thump on his arm instead. 'We going to see you at the bar tonight?'
'If the weather clears,' said Hare gruffly, glancing at his computer screen and the satellite weather map currently dominating it. 'Which it won't. Tell your mama I'll be down for that drink tomorrow night.'
'And tell her I'm sorry for her loss and mind you say it right.'
'I'll say it right,' said Jolie, with a catch in her voice on account of Hare's deep understanding of her mother's position. Brazen bar owner Rachel Tannerthe bar reputedly a gift from James Reeswould get little sympathy from anyone on account of James's death. Instead she would grieve for her lover in lonely silence. 'I'll practise beforehand.'
Hare just rolled his eyes again and looked out of the tower window and up at the sky. 'Kia waimarie, little one.' Good Luck. 'Keep your head down. And close up behind you as you go.'
Hare waited until Jolie was out of the door before rubbing at his aching arm again and letting out a sigh. The girl wasn't wrong to want to avoid Cole Rees on this of all days, but whether she could was a different matter altogether. Chances were that at some point during the ride down the mountain Cole Rees would look twice at the youth who rode down with him. Chances were that he'd start adding up the inconsistencies.
Hare employed teenagers on the mountain if they had the experience and steadiness he was looking for, but he didn't take them that small. Ever.
Nor did they come with alabaster skin, a delicate jaw and, if a man could get past those lipsand some couldn'teyes the colour of snow clouds.
It'd be Jolie's eyes that would give her away. No one had eyes like the Tanner women. Not that colour. Not that challenge that lurked in their depths. A siren's mix of sensual selfawareness shot through with aching vulnerability.
Fact: a man could get lost in such eyes and never surface.
He'd seen it happen.
And witnessed the carnage it had caused. 'Eyes down, girlie,' he whispered. 'You give that boy a chance.'
Cole Rees put his head down and quickened his stride as he headed for the ski gondola. The weather matched his mood: filthy and unpredictable, his emotions a roiling mess of sadness and regret, anger and defiance. He hadn't been able to sit through his father's funeral, not all of it. The glowing accolades had turned his stomach. His mother's genuine grief had fuelled his fury. His sister's anxious pleading for him to please not make things worse had only cemented his decision to get the hell out of there before he cursed his feted father to rot in hell for eternity.
There would have been no coming back from that.
His mother the society maven would have crumpled completely.
Hannah, his sister, was stronger than that. Hannah would have made him pay dearly for subjecting the family to yet more scandal.
Only the gossip mongers would have been satisfied, but not for long. They never were.
He'd wanted a woman to lose himself inand there were plenty aroundbut even that small comfort reeked of his father's legacy. Of thoughtlessness and recklessness and appetites not easily sated. And maybe Cole had outgrown thoughtlessness a few years back, and maybe he did his best to check his recklessness, but on that third count he was as guilty as sin.