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Golden beams of light shone through the windows of the two-story house situated in the mountains overlooking Jackson Hole. Although Christmas had been a month earlier, garlands of greenery and wreaths with plaid ribbons still adorned the large wraparound porch.
Poppy Westover added her serviceable Ford to the dozens of cars already parked in the clearing east of the house. Tiny snowflakes danced across the well-scooped path as she began the trek to the front steps of the house she'd passed only moments before. Ducking her head, she forged onward. The brisk north wind slapped her cheeks and ruffled her hair.
Lights might illuminate the walkway, but the dark of the winter evening still closed in around her. By now, the party had been going on for an hour, almost two. She prided herself on being timely, but a last-minute call to secure an emergency foster placement had delayed her leaving the office.
Poppy reached the steps of the beautifully decorated porch just as a sleek black Mercedes drove slowly past. Another late arrival. The thought that she wouldn't be the last to show up buoyed her spirits even as she grimaced at the familiar lines of the vehicle.
Though this was a newer version and a different color, a similar CL550 coupe had been her ex-husband's pride and joy. Even with public transportation readily available, he'd insisted on driving the car to social functions. And there had been lots of such events. As a prominent Manhattan neurosurgeon, Bill Stanhope had been on everyone's must-invite list.
Poppy had grown increasingly weary of socializing with his associates and people he'd wanted to impress. People who lived an extravagant and loose lifestyle; married men and women who took lovers as easily as another glass of champagne.
This evening would be different. Tonight she'd be among people who shared her values. Friends. Former schoolmates.
Dr. Travis Fisher, the host of the party, had graduated from Jackson Hole High with her. Back in the day, they'd even dated briefly. Now he was married, the father of five and one of the top ob-gyns in Jackson Hole.
Poppy rang the bell then jammed gloved hands into her coat pockets and hunched her shoulders against the wind. Thankfully she didn't have to wait long. The door opened and a flood of warmth and delicious smells spilled out.
Frowning at her chattering teeth, Travis motioned her inside and shut the door firmly against the winter chill. An efficient young woman dressed all in black offered to take Poppy's coat.
After shrugging off the soft cashmere, Poppy murmured her thanks then held both hands out to Travis. "Thanks for inviting me."
"We were determined to hound you until you accepted one of our invitations." He gave her fingers a firm squeeze and coupled the gesture with a warm smile. There was something intrinsically likable about the tall doctor with sandy-colored hair.
"You look lovely this evening," she heard him add.
Poppy glanced down. She'd dressed in such a hurry that for a second she didn't recall what she'd pulled from the closet. Though she knew most women used the party as an excuse to wear something new they'd gotten for Christmas, this year her family had sent money rather than gifts.
Unfortunately her new job kept her far too busy for shopping. Because of that, she'd been forced to call into service a red cashmere turtleneck dress from several seasons back and last year's black-heeled boots.
The dress had been purchased the first year after her divorce. Her ex considered bold colors "gauche."
Poppy smoothed her hand against the ruby-colored cashmere. The fabric molded against her body, gently hugging her curves. Stylish. Feminine. Gauche. She smiled. "I'd never have worn something like this back in high school."
She'd been preppy then. Seriously preppy. Plaid jackets. Diamond pattern sweaters. Pearls. How she'd loved those pearls.
As if remembering his own questionable fashion sense during those years, Travis grinned. "Those were good years. Good times."
When his smile slipped Poppy remembered Travis's parents had been killed at the end of his senior year, leaving him in charge of his seven siblings. Yes, she mused, looking too far back probably wasn't advisable. For him. Or for her.
Travis placed a hand on her elbow and guided her through a foyer rich with the scent of evergreens. They stopped at the edge of a large room where elegant women in stylish dresses mingled with men in dress pants and sport coats.
The star at the top of an enormous, brightly lit Christmas tree winked on and off as if pulsing in time to some unheard tune. A cheerful fire crackled noisily in the hearth of a massive stone fireplace. Conversation and laughter wafted pleasantly in the air. Poppy exhaled a breath and the tension in her shoulders eased.
"I heard you scored a job with social services." Travis's eyes held a look of admiration. "They're lucky to have you."
"I'm the lucky one." Poppy adored children. The opportunity to help foster kids, while challenging, had been a dream come true.
The melodious chimes of the doorbell sounded and Travis cocked his head. A rueful smile touched his lips.
"You'll have to excuse me," he said smoothly, giving her arm a gentle squeeze. "I'm on door duty."
The other late arrival, Poppy thought.
"Tend to your guests." She waved to several women across the room. "I'm in the mood to mingle."
Travis took several steps then turned back and called over his shoulder. "Check out the mistletoe."
Mistletoe? For a second she was puzzled. Christmas had been a month ago. Then Poppy remembered the retro party the Fishers had hosted last fall, right after she'd returned to Jackson Hole. Tiny sprigs of little red berries and shiny green leaves were everywhere.
When she'd asked, someone told her that mistletoe had been a big part of Mary Karen and Travis's courtship and they hung it at every party.
Taking Travis's words as a warning, Poppy glanced up, trying to spot any troublesome berries or waxy leaves. There might have been one in the beamed ceiling but she couldn't be sure.
A delicious aroma of cinnamon mingled with evergreen while the hum of conversation and laughter wrapped around her shoulders like a favorite sweater. Her lips lifted. Poppy had been invited to several Christmas parties but had declined all offers. She wished now that she'd accepted.
"Poppy," Mary Karen Fisher shrieked, rushing over. "I'm so happy you made it."
The intensity and underlying warmth of the greeting made Poppy smile. She chatted easily with Travis's petite, pretty wife who looked adorable in a sapphire blue tunic dress, her blond hair falling in a mass of curls past her shoulders.
When one of the catering staff asked for a moment of Mary Karen's time, Poppy meandered over to the tree. It was real, she realized with a start of pleasure, fingering the soft needles of the fir, inhaling the intoxicating scent.
She'd been much too busy to put her own tree up this year. If there had been someone to see it, Poppy might have gone to the effort. But her mom and dad had remained in California for the holidays. They lived in Sacramento now, just down the block from Poppy's sister and brother-in-law and their three children.
Knowing this would be their oldest daughter's first Christmas since she'd relocated to Jackson Hole, her parents had offered to make the trip to Wyoming. But Poppy knew how much they'd been looking forward to seeing Ai-mee's children open presents on Christmas morning. If her dad were here, he couldn't dress up as Santa for the grand-kids, like he'd done for her and Aimee.
Poppy had seen no option but to inject a hint of regret into her tone and tell them she'd already made plans to celebrate the holidays with friends.
Her parents' relief had been almost palpable. They believed her, of course. After all, she'd always had a wide circle of friends.
Poppy's mouth lifted in a wry twist. For as long as she could remember she'd been the pretty, popular older sister. Yet, it was Aimee who now had what Poppy had always wanted: a fulfilling life that included not only a rewarding career but a loving husband and children.
When Poppy had married eight years ago, she'd been certain it would last forever. Never had she imagined that her husband would cheat on her. Or that she'd be divorced, childless and starting over at thirty-four.
"I almost didn't recognize you," a deep voice murmured.
An involuntary shiver slid up her spine at the sound of the rich baritone. She snagged a glass of champagne from a passing waiter's silver tray before turning to meet Dr. Benedict Campbell's steely gray eyes.
As usual, the man looked positively delectable. Tonight he wore brown trousers, a cream-colored button-down shirt open at the collar and shiny Italian loafers. His razor-cut dark hair was short enough to be professional but long enough to tempt a woman to run her fingers through the chestnut strands to see if they were as silky as they looked.
Benedict was an orthopedic surgeon and a darn good one if public opinion could be believed. He was also one of the most eligible bachelors in Jackson Hole. They'd chatted briefly on several occasions. While he'd always been pleasant, she'd done her best to avoid him whenever possible. Goodness knows she'd had enough of arrogant doctors to last this lifetime.
He touched a strand of her dark hair. "This is different."
"I got it cut yesterday." She quenched the sudden urge to pull back from his touch. "I wanted to go even shorter but the stylist told me to try it to the shoulders with a few layers first. She said I could always come back and have more cut off."
Poppy pressed her lips together to stop her nervous chatter.
"It suits you," he said easily as if they were discussing nothing more personal than the current weather forecast. Yet when his eyes met hers, she saw pure masculine appreciation in the liquid depths.
Lifting his glass of wine he tapped the crystal against hers. "To being adventurous."
She hesitated. Though his smile was smooth, his expression bland, she sensed an undercurrent of challenge. As she hesitated, he raised a brow. Deciding she was being silly, Poppy took a sip.
They stood there for several heartbeats, gazing over the sea of people. She told herself to make an excuse and walk away but the testosterone wafting off him kept her tethered where she stood.
If anything, she had to fight the urge to lean into him. What had her mother always said? Stand too close to the fire and you'll get burned.
"Travis warned me about the mistletoe." She blurted the first thing that came to her mind when the silence lengthened.
Benedict's lips quirked upward. "I'm surprised he said anything. Both he and Mary Karen seem to take great joy in watching their friends get caught under those tiny sprigs."
"Seems kind of foolish to me," Poppy mumbled, then immediately wished she could pull the words back. Just because she had no intention of making a public spectacle of herself didn't mean other people might not enjoy an unexpected kiss.
Killjoy. Isn't that what her ex had once called her when she'd complained about the endless parties? Hadn't he made it clear the reason she wasn't having fun at the events was because of her attitude? Perhaps he'd been right.
"It's much too early in the evening for a sigh." Benedict's eyes turned sharp and assessing.
Poppy could feel her face warm. "I"
"Why yes, I'd love to dance." He took her hand and grinned. "Thanks for asking."
She almost told him this was a cocktail party, not one of those fancy affairs at the Spring Gulch Country Club. Until she saw a space had been cleared in the middle of the room and more than one couple was swaying to the music from the big band era piped in from overhead.
They reached the edge of the impromptu dance floor before she could protest. When he pulled her to him and they began to move in time to the smooth tune, it was difficult to remember why she'd hesitated. His arms were strong and sure, one hand settling on her waist, the other holding hers in a firm grip.
Poppy told herself that once this song concluded, she'd make an excuse and get as far away from Benedict as possible. For now, dancing was preferable to making small talk. Except when they were simply talking, she hadn't been quite so aware of his broad chest or the strength in his arms. And she hadn't realized just how good he smelled.
The scent, spicy with a hint of tang, tickled Poppy's nose in a very pleasant way and made her want to press close to get a bigger whiff.
A female vocalist was singing about the glories of love. Poppy resisted the urge to snort. She'd once been an incurable romantic, a hopeless optimist, a love-struck fool. She was older now. Wiser.
Then what the heck are you doing in Benedict's arms having a good time?
Red warning flags began popping up in her head.
"How do you like your new job?" he asked in a low tone, his warm breath tickling the top of her ear.
"It's very rewarding." She made the mistake of glancing up, meeting those magnificent eyes framed by thick eyebrows and incredibly long lashes.
There was something in the slate-colored depths that made her stumble. A heat she hadn't expected. Nor had she expected an answering desire to course through her veins like slick, warm honey.
Feeling more than a bit panicky, she tried to recall what she knew about the man who held her so confidently in his arms. Benedict was dating a fellow doctor. That's right. He wasn't interested in her. He was simply being polite. She let her shoulders relax. "How's Mitzi?"
Okay, so perhaps she could have been a little more subtle, done a better job transitioning into the topic. But darn it, keeping a clear head was difficult when she was breathing in the intoxicating scent of his cologne mixed with the clean fresh smell of soap.
He cocked his head. "Mitzi Sanchez?"
She gave a jerky nod.
"She's fine." He looked perplexed. "But why ask me?"
"Because you're dating." Poppy spoke almost primly. "It's polite to inquire about a person's significant other."
He laughed then, a booming laugh that caused the couple dancing next to them to turn and smile.
"Mitzi and I are friends, colleagues." Benedict dropped a hand to her arm then steered her to an area where it was less crowded so they could talk. If he noticed the stiffening in her spine, he didn't mention it. "We haven't dated in months."
Poppy wondered if Bill had explained her away so easily to all the women he'd seen when they were married. "I saw the two of you together at The Coffee Pot only a couple of weeks ago."
At Benedict's puzzled look, she continued, filling in the blanks.
"It was a Sunday morning. You were seated beside her." Poppy lifted her chin. "I saw you," she repeated.
His expression turned thoughtful. "Large table? Back of the room?"
"That's correct," she said hesitantly now, wishing she could think of a way to change the subject.