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Justin Cade's specialty was women. While his colleagues on rescue patrol could attest he was a remarkably skilled skier, it was his expertise with females that made him infamous throughout Cielo Peak, Colorado. He may have set a town record with the number of women he'd dated, but he also used his powers for good. When a neighbor had been hell-bent on running over her unfaithful husband, it was Justin who'd charmed her into relinquishing her car keys. Over the summer, when his sister, Arden, had been in the clutches of pregnancy mood swings, it was Justin who'd had the most success calming her.
So when he heard an outraged female shriek, "Justin Cade, you heartless ass!" across the sporting goods shop, he wasn't too worried. His first reaction was gratitude that she'd momentarily drowned out the incessant Christmas music. Retailers had barely waited for Halloween to pass before bombarding shoppers with holiday tunes. There were still two weeks before Christmas, but Justin had hit his limit on fa-la-las and rum-pa-pum-pums.
Preparing to face his accuser, he turned from the shelf of ski wax, a conciliatory smile in place. It faltered when he caught a glimpse of red hair. Elisabeth? Conflicting feelings swirled through him, and his pulse had already accelerated in the split second it took him to realize his mistake. It wasn't Elisabeth Donnelly. Stupid to think it might have beenshe was far too poised to shout across a store.
No, it was her twin sister, Evangeline, better known as Lina, barreling toward him. What did I do to rile her? When it came to the Donnellys, he'd tried to keep a low profile since breaking up with Elisabeth five months ago.
Lina skipped the traditional "hello" in favor of threatening him. "If I weren't a foot shorter than you, I'd tear you limb from limb. It's kismet, running into you after what I learned this morning. The universe wants you to know this is your fault.'''
He ducked his head in agreement. "You're probably right. Unfortunately, my sins are so numerous, I'm not sure which one you mean."
"Elisabeth." Her voice was ice. "You remember her, don't you?"
The Donnelly twins, though they shared the same height and build, were not identical. Impulsive Lina, with her strawberry-blond ponytail, was cute. Elisabeth was striking. Her hair was a deeper red, cut in a silky bob that perfectly framed her features and moss-green eyes. Because Lina was more outspoken, people considered her the more fiery of the two. Anyone foolish enough to believe that had never kissed Elisabeth. She'd been like live flame in his arms.
He cleared his throat. "What about your sister? Is she okay?"
"No, she's lost her ever-loving mind! She told us over brunch that she and Kaylee " Lina trailed off, blinking furiously. "They're leaving Cielo Peak. And I blame you."
Leaving? But Elisabeth had spent her entire life here. She helped run the family-owned Donnelly Ski Lodge. Her father had been grooming her to take over since she was a teenager. And Justin couldn't imagine her uprooting Kaylee Truitt. He'd only met Elisabeth's goddaughter a handful of times, but even he understood how traumatic the past year had been for the little girl.
"Are you sure they're leaving?" he asked. "Maybe you mis"
"Would I be this upset if I wasn't sure?"
He still didn't see what this had to do with him, but he reluctantly empathized with her agitation. Justin's own sister was preparing to move away, and he hadn't seen his older brother in over a month. Soon, Justin would be alone.
Shaking off that melancholy thought, he refocused on Lina. "I know you'll miss her. The two of you have always been close, but"
"Spare me the faux sensitivity! I don't want sympathy from someone who acts like people are disposable. You have a different woman on your arm every week."
"Be that as it may," he countered in a low, tight voice, "I know a little something about losing family." He hadn't meant to say anything so personal. This damn season was getting to him. If time healed all wounds, why wasn't December ever any easier?
"I'm sorry. I forgot about your sister-in-law's crash." Lina's pale cheeks flushed with shame. "And your parents"
"Died a long time ago. No need to dredge it up now." He couldn't. He couldn't stand in the middle of the store and discuss his mom and dad with a casual acquaintance while some ridiculous song about wanting a hippopotamus for Christmas played overhead. With effort, he relaxed his clenched jaw. "If you'll excuse me, I'm going to make my purchase and forget this charming encounter ever took place."
He grabbed a container of ski wax and moved to pass her.
She touched his arm. "Elisabeth is about to make the biggest mistake of her life."
What did Lina expect him to do? Justin could barely be trusted to handle his own life. He shrugged. "Maybe she needs a temporary change of pace. It doesn't have to be a permanent, forever-and-ever decision."
"Actually we aren't just talking about a change of scenery. It's way worse. Being on the rebound from you made my normally brilliant sister stupid."
Not possible. Elisabeth was the sharpest person he knew. She had a mind like a computer.
"After you broke her heart," Lina continued, "she met a software developer from Albuquerque. Justin, she's getting married."
Am I doing this wrong? It was a question Elisabeth Donnelly had begun asking herself daily since becoming guardian to her six-year-old goddaughter. Despite the months that had passed, there were still moments she couldn't believe she was a parent, couldn't believe that her friend and former college roommate, Michelle, was gone.
Right now, Kaylee was staring back across the kitchen table with brown eyes that were exactly like her late mother's. From her curly dark hair to her freckles, the kindergartener was a mini-Michelle. Similarities between mother and daughter weren't just physical, either. They had being orphaned in common. Former foster child Michelle Truitt had gone to college on a state scholarship and had no known relatives. She'd been a single mom. Elisabeth couldn't predict how Kaylee would feel about having a father figure for the first time in her life.
"You understand everything I'm telling you?" Elisabeth asked cautiously. Earlier that Sunday, while Kaylee had gone with a classmate to a holiday puppet show, Elisabeth had taken the opportunity to tell her parents and sister about her engagement. Their reactions had been immediate and dramatic. In comparison, Kaylee's unblinking expression revealed nothing.
The little girl nodded. "You're marrying Mr. Steven. We're all gonna live together."
"Right. But you don't have to say 'mister,' honey. You can just say Steven, like you do Elisabeth" At the funeral, her heart had squeezed into a painful knot when Kaylee asked between sobs, "Do I hafta call you Mommy now?" Elisabeth had blurted no so quickly she'd worried about making the child feel unwanted. To soften the refusal, she'd clarified that it was Kay-lee's choice.
Choices. Since August, it felt as if Elisabeth had been constantly second-guessing hers. While she'd never been as brashly confident as her sister, the former prom queen, Elisabeth had been sure of herself in other, less outspoken ways. That steady self-assurance had been shaken by the one-two punch of the man she loved dumping her and being thrust a few weeks later into parenthood. Now there was a small person in her life who was wholly dependent on her, who would be impacted by every decision Elisabeth made.
Then I'd better make the right ones. "Do you like Steven?" she prompted.
Kaylee's only answer was a barely perceptible shrug of her slim shoulders.
Oh, dear. "The two of you seemed to have fun at the zoo yesterday."
The girl didn't do anything so radical as smile, but her gaze brightened fractionally. "Monkeys are funny." Then she shoved an entire cookie into her mouth. Was that her way of ending the conversation?
Sighing, Elisabeth told herself that Steven and Kaylee would have plenty of time to bond. At least they'd met now. Since nearly all of Elisabeth and Steven's relationship had been long-distance, she'd refused to answer his proposal until he'd spent a couple of days with Kaylee. Elisabeth had pulled Kaylee from school early on Thursday and taken her to Albuquerque. By the time they'd arrived back home this morning, Elisabeth was officially engaged.
She'd wanted her parents and sister to hear the announcement first so they had time to work through theirmisgivingssurprise and could help bolster Kaylee's enthusiasm. That plan might not work as well as she'd hoped. Lina had looked downright betrayed by Elisabeth's news, but surely she would remain positive in front of Kaylee? Over the past four months, Lina had proven herself a natural-born aunt.
An aunt who's about to be nine hundred miles from her niece. Elisabeth and Steven wanted to get married before his upcoming promotion took him to California. Moving to neutral ground together, as a family, would give them the perfect fresh start. He'd suggested that after he got settled into his new job, they could take Kaylee to Disneyland.
Elisabeth debated whether mention of Disney would perk up the little girl, but decided to keep that as an ace in her sleeve. "Are you all done with the cookies Chef made you?" A surprising bond had formed between Kaylee and the lodge's award-winning Chef Bates. Just that morning he'd delivered a small box of jelly-frosted spice cookies.
Kaylee nodded solemnly. "Can I go play?"
"Yes, but I'm here if you want to talk. About anything," she encouraged. "Even monkeys."
Her goddaughter silently slid from her chair and darted for freedomonly to retrace her steps and grab one last cookie before disappearing around the corner. Elisabeth didn't have the heart to call her back and remind her to take a napkin. After moving from Denver to Cielo Peak earlier in the year and finally beginning to adapt, poor Kaylee was about to be shifted again. She'd earned the right to scatter a few crumbs through Elisabeth's loft apartment.
Cookies and monkeysI can do this. She'd made a promise to Michelle. Whatever it took, Elisabeth would raise a happy, well-adjusted daughter. But she was indescribably grateful that she would be married soon and wouldn't have to do it alone.
While tourists usually congregated in the surrounding resort bars, Cielo Peak locals favored Peak's Pints. Especially on Tuesday nights, when pitchers of beer were only a dollar. Elisabeth scanned the crowded tavern for a free table. At least she had plenty of illumination for her search. The usual neon signs were supplemented by Christmas lights strewn all around the interior.
Her attention snagged on the cheerfully crooked Christmas tree next to the jukebox. Between extra hours during the lodge's busy holiday season and her weekend trip to New Mexico, she hadn't put up a tree yet. Would decorating one be fun for Kaylee, or would it simply remind the girl that she was facing her first Christmas without her mother?
"Hey!" Lina elbowed her in the side. "We're here to celebrate, not stand in the doorway all night."
"I'm looking for a place to sit. It's packed. You see anything, Nic?"
Boutique owner Nicole Lewis had the best vantage point. While the Donnelly twins barely topped five foot three, Nicole was almost six feet tall. With her natural grace and high cheekbones, she looked more like someone who modeled clothes on a runway than someone who sold them.
"Back corner, follow me." Wasting no time, Nicole strode in that direction.
They all hurried, hoping to secure the spot before anyone else took it, but they hadn't gone far when a man rose from his chair to hug Lina. Lifelong experience had taught Elisabeth that her twin would probably pause to say hi to a half dozen more people along the way. Elisabeth continued on without her.
Shrugging out of her coat, she slid into the booth across from Nicole. Although her friend had only moved here four years ago, Elisabeth often felt as if they'd known each other their whole lives. "I know I said this over the phone already, but that's not the same as face-to-face. Thank you for agreeing to be my maid of honor. The wedding plans are moving fast, and I really appreciate the help."
"I'm flattered you asked me. But surprised you didn't pick Lina."
"Well, she'll be a bridesmaid, of course. I know I can count on you. You have good attention to detail. Lina " Elisabeth chose her words carefully. " favors spontaneity."
"Says the woman who shocked us all with her engagement," Nicole teased.
"I admit the timing might seem sudden, but with Steven relocating to California in six weeks, taking this step now is logical."
"I think you've said 'logical' ten times since you called me about the engagement." Nicole propped her chin on her fist. "Know what I haven't heard you say? Romantic. Passionate."
Elisabeth grimaced. "I've had my share of passion."
"You mean Justin Cade?" Even Nicole, the most loyal of friends, sounded a bit breathless when she mentioned Mr. Tall, Dark and Temporary. Where Justin was concerned, women easily lost their breath. And their good sense. And often their clothes.
"Right. That guy."
"I never expected you to get over him so soon. Not to poke at emotional wounds, but you seemed destroyed when the two of you broke up over the summer."
"I don't like to dwell on that." The memory of herself as fragile and weepy embarrassed her. She was a strong, intelligent woman, someone who was supposed to be a role model for Kaylee. "It's been plenty of time to get over a guyeven one who thinks he's God's gift to women."
Nicole looked unconvinced. "We're talking about more than simple recovery after an ex. In less than six months, you healed your heartbreak, fell for someone else and decided to get married."